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Living and dying for Martin Luther King's dream

  • 19 February 2015

Selma (M). Director: Ava DuVernay. Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey. 128 minutes

Much has been made of the racial and gender bias evident in this year's Oscar nominations. I will leave it to columnist Fatima Measham to reflect at greater length upon the underlying reasons for and implications of this issue (in an article that will appear on Friday). Suffice it for now to say that both Selma's director, African-American woman DuVernay, and its star, Oyelowo, a Black British-African man, deserve to have their names among the list of contenders at Hollywood's night of nights this weekend.

The film (which has been nominated for Best Picture, despite DuVernay's snubbing) takes place in 1965, at a time when Black Americans have been given the vote but when legal loopholes still exist that are as good as stone barriers in places where racial prejudice flourishes.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (a suitably curmudgeonly Wilkinson) has passed racial discrimination legislation some months before, but has since turned his attention to other aspects of his would-be legacy. With the likes of Alabama governor George Wallace (a hilariously smarmy Roth) agitating for the racist status quo, Johnson is inclined to try to placate recent Nobel Laureate King rather than genuinely entertain enacting legislation to enshrine Black voting rights.

King won't be placated. He begins to plan a series of actions centred on the town of Selma, Alabama, where repression has been particularly accute. These will culminate in the now-legendary Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965, but only after a certain amount of political and actual blood has been spilt. DuVernay's treatment of the conflicts between protestors and police is not sensational but it is shocking in its frank brutality. Throughout, she demonstrates the power of self-assured understatement.

The notorious crackdown at Edmund Pettus Bridge is narrated by a journalist reporting the event in a voice cracking with emotion to his editors. In turn, the 'live' action is juxtaposed with ordinary citizens watching the scenes unfold in news footage beamed into their homes. Thus in a few short minutes DuVernay captures the chaotic, tragic essence of the moment while at the same time highlighting the emerging power of media to amplify current events (something King sought strategically to harness).

The power of understatement is evident also in DuVernay's treatment of King's infidelity — an important inclusion in any fair, honest portrayal of the great man. It is addressed only once, when