Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is trying to register to vote in Selma. Although she can recite the preamble to the Constitution and knows precisely how many judges there are in the county, she is unable to actually name them all. Therefore, her application is sneeringly rejected by the white county court officer. Fresh from accepting his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) appeals personally to President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to legislate against such discriminatory practices which effectively disenfranchise millions of southern African Americans.
Although LBJ proposes a diversionary “war on poverty”, King is adamant that “This voting thing can’t wait.” Invited by the Dallas County Voters League to join them, King and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference activists Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and Andrew Young (Andre Holland), set out for Selma, Alabama in January 1965.
After two months of protests which lead to the arrest of over 3,000 people and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), James Bevel (Common) proposes a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.
The horrific events of March 7, “Bloody Sunday”, in which 600 marchers are set upon and beaten by Alabama state troopers, are beamed worldwide on television, sparking the conscience of liberal-minded people everywhere.
Even though the eyes of the world are now focused on Selma, Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Sheriff Clarke (Stan Houston) continue to resist pressure from the White House, which forces LBJ to act. On March 15, in a televised joint sitting of Congress, he introduces and requests the passage of his administration’s bill on universal voting rights.
While these dramatic events make riveting viewing, so too do the backroom political machinations at both federal and state level, and within the various community groups working to mobilise support for the African Americans voting rights.
After his nonchalant offer to have King killed is dismissed by the President, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) proposes to “go with the wife and dismantle [King’s] family”.
Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo) is systematically worn down by the “constant closeness of death” and a “fog of phone threats and filth”. Apart from the obvious fear that her husband will be assassinated like the Kennedy brothers and Malcolm X, Coretta is subjected to anonymous phone calls threatening their children and impugning her husband’s fidelity.
Although King is aware that Hoover’s strategy is aimed at ruining the movement by ruining him, he remains focused on “what God wants” and reiterates in his powerful, eloquent speeches that “we will vote and we will put these men out of office”. By March 25, the ranks of the marchers have swollen to 25,000 in support of African American voting rights.
Surprisingly, Selma has only received two Oscar nominations — Best Picture and Best Original Song. David Oyelowo’s magnificent performance, Ava DuVernay’s direction Paul Webb’s screenplay and Bradford Young’s cinematography surely deserve to be nominated.
See it and judge for yourself. Trailer