Anita Casey-Reed
 
 
    
 
David Oyelowo portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a scene from "Selma", a film that marked the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Atsushi Nishijima)
 
 

When looking at photographs and footage of the U.S. civil rights movement, the almost inevitable tendency is to think, "Oh, look, there's Martin Luther King Jr. ... and some other people." The key to Ava DuVernay's "Selma" is how she uses familiarity with MLK to introduce lesser-known individuals such as Amelia Boynton, Hosea Williams, James Bevel and Annie Lee Cooper. Through them, we see how critical the involvement of everyday people was to bringing change, and how that involvement came with a heavy cost.

It can't be easy to make an historical drama such as "Selma," because the audience already knows the outcome and the figures involved. For example, as much as I love Tom Wilkinson, it was hard for me to accept him as President Johnson; and even though I know that the scenes in the White House provide context for the Voting Rights Act marches, from a storytelling perspective it killed the momentum built in scenes depicting events in Alabama.

That quibble aside, DuVernay brings a tremendous vibrancy to the film, but it would be almost impossible to make "Selma" much of anything without an extraordinary performance at the center. David Oyelowo takes Martin Luther King Jr. and turns him from an icon back into a human being -- a man faced with almost non-stop stress and fear, but one who manages to keep pressing on with his mission.

At the same time, the movie stresses how it is just not one man who made this happen; rather, it is the combined efforts of thousands of people facing tear gas and billy clubs as they march 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery to demand the equal right for African Americans to vote. One aspect I appreciated was the time "Selma" took to give a bit of the spotlight to Amelia Boynton (played by Lorraine Toussaint from "Orange Is the New Black") and Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), two local women who helped organize the first protests in town. They were ordinary women who were beaten unconscious, arrested and threatened repeatedly, but who never quit. "Selma," rated PG-13 for language and violence, is worth seeing not only because it contains fantastic acting and direction, but because it's a story that resonates just as much today as it did half a century ago.



 
Anita Casey-Reed is a member of the Cinema 100 Film Society, a volunteer for the Dakota Digital Film Festival and co-host of "Reel Retro" on Dakota Media Access. She lives in Bismarck with her husband and two children.