by NEVIL GIBSON
Religious belief seldom gains the recognition it deserves in major mainstream movies.
Among this year’s Oscar contenders, the life of Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini is cut short in Unbroken to cut out references to his conversion and later life as a Bill Graham-inspired evangelist.
American Sniper shows shots of a Bible and a brief church scene. Even Exodus: Gods and Kings goes out of its way to avoid belief in “miracles” in its story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt.
But Selma (Studio Canal) puts Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Christianity to the fore in his struggle for civil rights in the United States in the 1960s. I hesitate to suggest
this may be one of the reasons why Selma missed out on a Best Picture nomination, although it was recognised in a few other categories.
One was David Oyelowo as Dr King during the period of his greatest success, from the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1964, which opens the film, through to the three marches from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.
This gave all Americans equality at the ballot box, something that was missing in the southern states, where blacks faced bureaucratic hurdles that maintained a racist political system.
Director Ava DuVernay sets the context with some impressive scenes: Dr King’s oratory when
receiving his Nobel prize, a church being bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, and a futile attempt by Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register as a voter.
Then follows the first of a series of verbal encounters (usually by telephone) between Dr King, as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was reluctant to enact the voting law.
Dr King then decides to relocate his movement to Selma and plan non-violent resistance through a mass march to Montgomery, where a defiant state governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is an upholder of white supremacy.
This political process is treated with the same detail and effect as those in Steven Spielberg’s masterly Lincoln, where similar issues occurred during the American Civil War.
Dr King’s insistence on nonviolence and Christian principles was hard-fought against the more militant members of the cause, as was his belief that success could only occur with support from all Christians to persuade the president, who faced dilemmas of his own.
The screenplay (Paul Webb) depicts the fears, doubts and hopes in fully rounded dialogues that are made all the more remarkable for drawing on FBI phone-tapping files. The speeches are reconstructions, too, as the King Estate claims intellectual property rights over the originals and did not allow their use.
Fortunately, this does not detract from the overall impression that, despite the Selma marches raising the conscience of a nation about the insidious nature of racism,the battle is still not over.
This makes Selma a more substantial contribution than The Butler (2013), which concluded
its more upbeat message that all would be solved with the election of President Barrack Obama.
Rating: Mature audiences (violence and offensive language); 128 minutes.