Following the New York premiere of “Selma,” a dramatic account of a pivotal chapter in the civil rights movement, director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo and other cast members took to the steps of the city’s public library, raising their arms in the “don’t shoot” pose and wearing T-shirts bearing the last words of slain Staten Island resident Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.” The red-carpet event and protest unfolded on the same December weekend that saw more than 25,000 demonstrators march through the streets of Manhattan after a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the choking death of Garner.
It was a surprisingly blunt statement of political and artistic intent for a film that likely would have struck a resonant chord in any year — not least because it’s the first theatrical feature ever made about the life of Martin Luther Jr. (Oyelowo), and an important corrective to what DuVernay calls an act of “criminal” negligence on Hollywood’s part. But as was clear from that dramatic moment on the library steps — and a recent New York press conference, where the sound of protests could be heard in the distance while DuVernay and producer Oprah Winfrey calmly answered questions — “Selma” could scarcely have emerged at a more bracing or troubling hour than the present one: a time when the killings of Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford and countless other African-American men have sparked widespread outrage and a fierce national debate on racism, white privilege and the need for police reform.
With its ground-level scenes of organized protest, stirring outcry for justice, and shrewd understanding of the media’s role in drawing attention to a righteous cause, “Selma” has become an indelible movie of the moment— that rare epochal work that speaks as pointedly to this era as to the one it depicts.
“Divine timing is what it is,” Winfrey says during a recent interview at her home in Santa Barbara, where she, DuVernay and Oyelowo were preparing to host a screening for veterans of the civil rights movement. For Winfrey, a firm believer in the importance of knowing one’s history, the achievement of “Selma” is that it dramatizes, and demystifies, those celebrated efforts.
“You get to see the magnitude and power of their discipline and strategy,” she says. “And also, in the end, that they called on love. When (King) called on those clergy from all over the country, they actually came and (were willing to give) up their lives.”
Set over a three-month period in 1965, the film (which opened Dec. 25 in limited release and will expand Jan. 9) offers a sharply focused, strikingly intimate account of how King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a series of 50-mile marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The anti-black violence that erupted on what became known as Bloody Sunday — inflamed by Selma’s racist leadership and magnified by the press — galvanized the nation and ultimately spurred the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which helped millions of Southern blacks to vote for the first time.
“Selma’s” chronicle of that tumultuous period proved especially transporting for many who attended the Washington, D.C., premiere on Dec. 11. During the post-screening Q&A, 74-year-old Congressman John Lewis, sharing the stage with DuVernay and Oyelowo, described the surreal experience of seeing himself onscreen as a civil rights activist in his 20s — a far cry from his days growing up a few miles from Selma, where “when we went to the theater, as young black children, we had to go upstairs to the balcony.” Willa Hall Smith, an Alabama native, recalled her firsthand experience participating in the marches: “This is not just a movie, folks! This is real. This actually happened.”
Yet it hasn’t taken long for the conversation to shift from the injustices of the past to those of the present. While DuVernay originally thought the film might help draw attention to the ongoing issue of minority voter suppression in the U.S., she says the ever-present reality of police violence against unarmed black men was never far from her mind. For all involved, the movie began to seem even more unsettlingly prescient after Brown was killed on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., a little more than a month after production wrapped in Atlanta. (Since then, another August police killing of a black man — Ford, shot at close range by members of the LAPD — has come to light, causing recent protests in Los Angeles.) read more..