From the galvanising oratory of David Oyelow, through gut-wrenching scenes of brutality to moments of heart-warming solidarity, Selma is a captivating film that encapsulates a full range of emotions, triumphs and losses in the American civil rights movement through a focus on its leader, Martin Luther King. Notwithstanding the praise that critics have rightly endowed upon it, Selma has a powerful message that extends beyond the cinematic realm and right into the heart of any movement working to overcome injustice, intolerance and hatred: change requires hard work, dedication and constant attention. But non-violent change is possible and local action works – a message that resonates with us here at Peace Direct.
Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King’s campaign for equal rights in 1965. By this time, the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been passed but progress for voting rights had stalled in many American cities because of complex discriminatory rules which prevented registration. Thus the town of Selma in the deep south of Alabama is chosen as the next battleground for King’s campaign, due to the particularly racist regime run by Governor George Wallace.
The film gravitates around three marches from Selma to Montgomery, which aimed at pressuring President Lyndon Johnson into taking concrete action to ensure equality of voting, rather than focusing his attention on the rapidly escalating Vietnam war. Intricate storylines weave through the main plot and give it a real human face. One story of a young activist, shot in front of his mother and grandfather, serves as a symbolic leitmotif for the dangers that people risked to stand up for what they believed in. This is complemented by the tormenting moral struggles that King went through, as the leader of a movement that sometimes resulted in its advocates, both black and white, being arrested, attacked or killed. Such moments of police brutality are brilliantly articulated by captivating film work, such as the moment when key character Amelia Boynton Robinson (played by Lorraine Touissant) is thrown to the ground, the clunk of her head on the concrete dramatising the injustice felt by all.
Despite such violence, scenes of heartening solidarity cut through bloodshed to illuminate the inspiring message of King’s speeches, which punctuate the film. He speaks out against the hatred that has taken so many, and pleads for people to come together, to listen to each other and to work together for equality. This is no more clearly illuminated than by the scene of thousands marching arm in arm where neither race, religion nor gender is a barrier. It is a powerful image of the human capacity for tolerance and unity. It is in managing this careful balance between devastating losses and exhilarating triumphs that Selma particularly excels.
Although Selma focuses its attention on a very specific historical moment, there is a prescient message which has contemporary global relevance: the journey to equality, peace and coexistence requires hard work, dedication and bravery, but the vision of one person can initiate huge change. Local action at the grassroots level is the only way to tackle the intolerances that lead to violence – and it works. This is the inspiring message we see in our brave and dedicated peacebuilding partners every day.