Film / Selma

"What happens when a man stands up and says, 'Enough is enough'?"
Martin Luther King, Jr

Selma is a 2014 film co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay. The film depicts the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act. David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King, Jr., alongside Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson, and a whole lot of other talented actors playing other historical figures. The movie marks the first major motion picture where MLK plays a central role.

The film was given a limited release on Christmas 2014 before expanding on January 9. The trailer can be seen here.

This Film Provides Examples Of:

  • Armor-Piercing Question: From Coretta Scott King, after her husband says he loves her: "Do you love any of the others?"
  • Artistic License History: When it was released, the film received criticism for downplaying or outright ignoring historical facts like the strong support of Jewish leaders for Doctor King, King's involvement with socialism and the labor movement, and the portrayal of President Johnson as an obstructionist. Director Duvernay invoked this trope by claiming, "I'm not a historian. I'm a storyteller."
  • Beware the Nice Ones: While Annie Lee Cooper had been depicted as quiet and soft-spoken, withholding her frustrations over denied her voting applications, she is enraged at the sight of Cager Lee being bullied by Sheriff Clark and punches him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The marchers reach Montgomery, Dr. King gives a famous speech, and President Johnson calls for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, but it's impossible to watch a movie about King without an awareness of his eventual assassination. Possibly an even bigger gut-punch is the fate of Viola Liuzzo, killed mere hours after the point where the movie ends.
  • Composite Character: Lyndon B. Johnson never gave any order to J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap King. That order came two years prior to the Selma marches, from then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Even then, Kennedy only approved a wiretap with severe limitations, which the well-connected Hoover proceeded to completely ignore.
  • Death of a Child: In the first five minutes, a bomb goes off in a church, killing four little girls.
  • Digital Destruction: The Blu-ray disc release has a transfer full of flat, bland color that gives the film more of a sepia tone look rather than a colorful look, and certain scenes have smudges visible on the edges of the shots.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Invoked in the song that plays during the end credits referencing the Ferguson protests. Invoked further by the film's cast at the New York premiere, wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts (in reference to Eric Garner's death at the hands of police) and raising their hands up in a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture (in reference to Ferguson, though the meme turned out to be false).
  • Double Standard:
    • One of King's complaints about LBJ is that while he phoned his condolences to the wife of a white minister who was murdered by racists, he didn't do the same to the mother of an unarmed black youth fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper while trying to protect his grandfather.
    • One of King's followers bluntly notes that the police withdrew on the second bridge march simply because they now had white folks among the marchers (most of them clergy).
  • Eye for an Eye: After the first Selma march is attacked, a hothead wants to start shooting, quoting the Bible for this trope. However, one of the leaders talks him out of it with the hard fact that all this would accomplish is their massacre by police.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Malcolm X comes to Coretta King offering to play this role so Martin's demands would feel all the more reasonable. Coretta takes some persuading and Martin, who didn't care for the black nationalist calling him an "Uncle Tom," takes even more convincing.
  • Good Flaws, Bad Flaws: MLK's adultery plays a part in the film, contrasting with his civil rights activities.
  • Good Needs Evil: A major reason for the SCLC heading for Selma is the notoriety of the Sheriff. When MLK meets the local student activists he specifically asks them whether the sheriff is likely to react with violence or not, and decides to come to Selma because of that. Later Coretta King tells Martin how difficult it is on the family to be constantly confronting potentially violent people.
  • Heel Realization: When President Johnson tries to convince an obstinate Governor Wallace to relent on "this Negro thing," citing the damage it's doing to both of their legacies, Wallace's dismissive refusal clearly helps Johnson decide what he really believes.
    I'll be damned to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Lyndon B. Johnson is depicted as an obstructionist to King when in reality he supported the Civil Rights Movement and viewed King as an essential partner in getting the Voting Rights Act enacted. He does relent by the end and is more or less depicted as a complicated politician, who did believe in the cause but was hesitant on how to act on it, so it's not a wholly negative portrayal. By the end of the film, he lets his true colors fly by tearing Governor Wallace a new one.
  • Hope Spot: During an attack on a protest, Jimmie Lee Jackson manages to take his mother and grandfather to a cafe where they blend in as customers. Then the police storm in...
  • Loophole Abuse: At the beginning of the film, Annie Lee Cooper goes to her city hall to register to vote. The clerk begins asking frivolous questions, such as naming all the judges in Alabama, to deny her application.
  • Moving the Goalposts: When Annie Lee Cooper tries to register to vote. The clerk asks her to recite the Constitution's Preamble. She does, flawlessly. He then asks her to name the number of county judges in Alabama. "Sixty-seven". He demands she name each and every one of them, at which point she gives up.
  • Oscar Bait: A movie about one of the most famous civil rights activists of all time. Just the fact that it was about Dr. King is enough for people to be clamoring to win every award on the planet, but the fact that it premiered during a time where race relations were a particularly flame-bait-y subject really seals the deal. It did win a number of awards, but only one of them was an Oscar, for Best Original Song.
  • Police Brutality: Alabama police forces are in full swing, literally. With their billy clubs, tear gas, and whips they attack defenseless protesters and murder a young black Army veteran trying to protect his grandfather. Some in the Movement accuse King of knowingly counting on the police brutalizing their followers to gain national sympathy, which is partly true. King ends up canceling the second march to Montgomery halfway through because he can't bear to let the police beat and murder innocent lives when he suspects a trap is being laid.
  • Warts and All: The film does not hide that King had feet of clay, such as his affairs. The FBI tries to wreck his home life by exposing that to his wife and they have a very tense time confronting it.
  • Wham Shot:
    • A few girls are at church, talking casually about their hair, and then the church explodes.
    • When the second group for the march assembles, there's a long shot of the title of the bridge...and then it pans up, showing not one line of protestors on one side of the bridge, but a whole army that completely covers it.
    • On the second march across the bridge, Martin and his followers kneel down in prayer when the police battalion permits them (possibly dubiously) to pass. Then, he stands up, and turns back.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: Ava DuVernay had to rewrite some of King's speeches, since she didn't have permission from the King estate to use the originals.
  • You Keep Telling Yourself That: LBJ's final talk with George Wallace essentially ends like this when Wallace sticks firmly to his segregationist ideals and tells the President that he doesn't much care what people in the far future will think of him. Johnson looks doubtful and decides he would rather be remembered for something positive. Historically, Wallace would indeed denounce his own actions, and after becoming a born-again Christian as a result of his later 1972 near assassination, plead for forgiveness from the black community. Despite this he's still remembered for segregation, just as Johnson warned.