Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2014 film Selma releases on DVD and Blu-ray today. The high-profile film garnered considerable attention for its complex account of the debates and strategies that led to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and for its humanizing portrait of its leaders, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) at the forefront. DuVernay’s film sparked debates about factual accuracy in historical fiction after some claimed Selma misrepresented LBJ’s role in the events, while others saw these criticisms as a conservative backlash against a civil rights account that foregrounded black leadership and collective achievement over myths of white saviors and individual heroes. To commemorate the DVD/ Blu-ray release of this remarkable film, two friends of the Black Film Center/ Archive at Indiana University, T. Michael Ford and Katrina Overby, have shared their responses to Selma.
DuVernay’s Selma: “Getting it Done”
The movie Selma is not a documentary, as some have tried to make it that are critical of Ava DuVernay’s latest cinematic offering, but a story that needs to be told time and again as it speaks to the elevating of the human spirit in the face of evil. And with her film Selma brought to the big screen, DuVernay has triumphantly and emphatically put her imprimatur on a film that is deserving of all the accolades and awards that have been and will be bestowed up on it. Further, the ensemble cast that brings the Selma story to life are applauded for displaying and imbuing their “A” game on historical events that resonate and have relevance to present day.
Though the persona of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK, portrayed admirably by David Oyelowo) is part of the primary focus of this film, for this author, so many of the other characters, male AND female, loom equally as large in their artistic and historical impact. From the opening scene where one of the producers of the film, Oprah Winfrey portraying Annie Lee Cooper, attempts to register to vote and is challenged by the city clerk to recite the names of the sixty-seven (67) country judges in the state of Alabama (which was just another version of the Poll Tax to dissuade and disenfranchise black voters), this film is meant to give the viewer the gritty, granular feel of what the reality was like for black citizens in Alabama (and throughout much of the rest of the country). The film displays in dramatic and emotional impact a key event in the civil rights history of the USA when MLK and his supporters ventured to Selma, Alabama to assist, participate and lead marches that were demanding voting rights for local black citizens who were being denied these rights as U.S. citizens. The series of marches (and televised beatings and brutalization by law enforcement and white citizen supporters), the meetings between MLK and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, eventually lead to the culmination of this chapter of civil rights history with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There are many others, film critics, industry experts who will write and wax-and-wane eloquently about this film…but for this author the resonance of the film was that I can recall seeing these events on the television when I was but a young child of around 7 years, and now to view this film with my 16-year old son, and to hear his questions and our discussion of events that seem so long ago and foreign to him (because so much of the story of U.S. Civil Rights still gets short shrift in our nation’s schools and too many adults have ‘selective amnesia’ on the violence and ugliness that is our nation’s history…) fully informs that films such as Selma are needed in a contemporary context with talented and visionary directors like DuVernay. She is a director, and a black female director is just icing on the cake (!), that illustrates there has been some progress in the film industry but much more is yet to be done. Further, beyond just directing this film, DuVernay was instrumental in rewriting the original screenplay, which is a formidable task and accomplishment that should not get short shrift.
There are many laudable scenes were you hold your breath (the marches on the Edmund Pettus bridge, hearing Governor Wallace rant while talking at President Johnson….) and others that warm you over and rivet you to the screen (MLK having his necktie tied by his loving wife Coretta, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, before the Nobel Prize ceremony, when she visits MLK in jail…) which makes the movie real and palpable. You are there. You can feel the heat of the day, smell the sweat of the people, and have that knot of apprehension in the pit of your stomach that the participants surely had as well. Selma manages to evoke all of these emotions and more which goes to the skill and talent of DuVernay, the assembled actors and crew. Also, the portrayal of other characters who played key roles in the events (James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, John Lewis and many others) is pivotal in telling the story to the audience that the events surrounding Selma weren’t just about MLK but were predicated on the common everyday men and women who said “Enough!” to second-class citizenship and discrimination which was at the time one of the many legal degradations manifested in whether one could register to vote or not.
In the telling of the events of Selma, DuVernay presents a clear, focused lens on what people of that time and place were being subjected too and how they and their allies, who came in various hues from light to dark, were willing to sacrifice, fight, and die for their legal rights as U.S. citizens. How through non-violent protest and persistence, even the President of the country and a reluctant Congress, could do what was right and legal for ALL citizens. The fact that the some politicians of this country and so many citizens still harbor bigoted and biased attitudes towards anyone who is not like them, points to the need and power of films such as Selma and why it and many others are worthy of being made and seen. In that regard, DuVernay triumphs in “getting it done” and most definitely raises her profile as a director. She tells a story that needs to be told and skillfully presents a subject and events that many are not comfortable in being confronted with because it illustrates a time and people who willingly and joyfully indulged in a version of apartheid that is very home-grown. Viewing Selma brings saliency to that old adage: “If one does not remember their history, they are doomed to repeat it.”
~ T. Michael Ford (May 2015)
Copyright © 2015. T. Michael Ford. The text and any related information is the property of the author and may be used only with the expressed permission of the author. Any review, retransmission, copying, dissemination or other use of this material without the permission of the author by persons or entities other is prohibited.
Ford is the Special Assistant to the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Indiana University, and a lifelong cinephile.
Selma Released on Blu-Ray and DVD
Director Ava DuVernay’s highly acclaimed and widely celebrated film Selma has its Blu-Ray and DVD debut on May 5, 2015. Selma was nominated for numerous awards, including the Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture and Golden Globe nominations for Best Director for Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, and won several awards including, both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song for a motion picture for the song “Glory” featuring John Legend and Common. The film, which had a limited release date on December 25th, 2014 and was widely released on January 9, 2015, has had an overall Domestic Total Gross of$52, 076, 908 (Box Office Mojo). To say the least, Selma is an important film and there are several reasons to add this film to your personal home collection.
First, Selma had several well-known actors and actresses and some break-out stars that included but aren’t limited to: David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Common, Trai Byers, Niecy Nash, and Tom Wilkinson. Each of these characters, and others in the film, fully embraced their roles and made the film that much more enjoyable because they made it real. I use the term enjoyable loosely however, as DuVernay was very unapologetic in the narrative she used to retell the devastating yet triumphant history of what took place in Selma, Alabama and the actors and actresses that she casted helped make the story come to life.
Second, DuVernay showed us things that we did not think we would, or maybe that we didn’t want to see relived in this film and some of the scenes were very heartbreaking, emotional, and unsettling. The retelling of major and minor historical events and facts throughout this film was significant to the storyline. One of the first scenes of the film retold the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion, which killed four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair. You would have to know the story and history of the four little girls to know that scene was about them, as it was not stated explicitly where they were nor who they were, as you witnessed the church exploding from the inside and images of school books and little white dress shoes soaring in the air with the rest of the debris, capturing the current racial climate and foretelling the struggle that would take place during the rest of the film. Another series of touching scenes was seeing the systematic techniques, fear and intimidation used to keep Oprah Winfrey’s character Annie Lee Cooper from being able to vote. While trying to register to vote, they asked Cooper to recite the preamble and a host of other unnecessary questions, showcasing the ridiculous illegal systematic tactics used to keep African Americans from voting. Scenes like these help audience members, especially those who may not be familiar, to understand the many pieces of the puzzle that led to planning a march for voting rights.
Finally, the film Selma highlighted the grassroots efforts of all involved and shed light on some of the tension and disagreement and compromise in strategizing to fight the illegal voting system. The film highlights the significant roles that youth and the members of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) played, which included John Lewis (Stephan James), and how they were getting the community involved in demonstrations and informing them on the ground level in Selma before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived. DuVernay also included some of the tension that was inside of Dr. King’s home amongst him and his wife Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo, concerning accusations of Dr. King having affairs with other women. The film also included a short scene with Malcom X, played by Nigel Thatch, where he is trying to show support for Dr. King, right before he is murdered, and speaks with Coretta to get her to understand that he wants to assist with the march to Montgomery.
Again, this is one movie to have certainly have in your collection. Ava DuVernay has already guaranteed one free copy to every high school in the United States and I think every school needs to have a copy. It is no secret that we support Ava DuVernay and her accomplishments, as she visited the Black Film Center/Archive in 2013 and truly left a great impression on us as several of her films and documentaries were screened. However, it is not just us who support DuVernay, it seems as if the world is acknowledging her work and she is an inspiration for many, which may be why just last month Barbie made an Ava DuVernay Doll. I leave with three words that resonated with me at the end of the film that were stated during one of the meetings for the march: Negotiate. Demonstrate. Resist.
Overby is a PhD Candidate in the School of Journalism at Indiana University, the community service chair of the Black Graduate Student Association, and a graduate assistant at the Black Film Center/ Archive.