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History goes on the march

06 February 2015

The film Selma goes on general release today, marking the 50th anniversary of the civil-rights marches led by Martin Luther King. Stephen Brown examines the film's relation to the events of history

Word of mouth: Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) addresses his followers before the march

Word of mouth: Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) addresses his followers before the march

SELMA pays tribute to Martin Luther King's 1965 campaign in Selma, Alabama, to enfranchise the black population. While much of the film corresponds to what really happened, it tends to heighten elements that could gain from dramatic licence.

This is not a criticism. In a film made during that era, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the newspaper editor asserts: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This is, perhaps, what cinema is almost bound to deliver.

What is important is that we are being reminded of a social injustice that was challenged by a predominantly Christian movement, led by someone impelled by his faith. "Our lives are not fully lived, unless we're prepared to live and die for what we believe," Martin Luther King says - or, rather, they are the words of his character, played by David Oyelowo. They may or may not be his actual words; the King estate refused to allow any use of his famous utterances in the film.

In any event, the film does what films do, and fills in the gaps between what resides in the public domain and private conversations. And Paul Webb's script has an eloquence and dignity congruent with his protagonist's own words.

Perhaps the trustees' reluctance to co-operate has something to do with why it has taken half a century to give Martin Luther King a starring role on the big screen. Until now, he has made only fleeting appearances in films such as The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Ali, and Forrest Gump.

But even Selma does not rate as either a biopic, or a history of the civil-rights movement under his guidance. We see the man only from the time he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 up to the signing of the Voting Rights Act on 6 August 1965. So, what happened before and after the period that this film covers?

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR was born in 1929, and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, a place where he experienced sharply the effects of racial segregation. Civil-rights issues were part and parcel of his Baptist upbringing. Inspired by his father's protests, the young King had to be persuaded vigorously before giving up his seat on a bus to a white person.

When he began training for the ministry, he was strongly influenced by Gandhi's non-violent methods of opposition in India, placing them into a theological context with thinkers such as Paul Tillich, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Thoreau, and Henry Nelson Wieman.

From the beginning, faith without works would have been anathema to King. The Church's task, he said, was to produce living witnesses, and testimonies to the power of God in human experience. It was the world of difference between optimism and hope.

The former succeeded in keeping black people in their place - passively whistling in the dark to keep their courage up, while enduring humiliation and non-enfranchisement. On the other hand, the Christian hope, which King seized upon, demanded action.

Mission, it has been said, is finding out what God is doing in the world, then joining in. During the 1950s, King, now a pastor, was already involving himself in the civil-rights movement. He came to public prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956.

In the early 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to focus its attention on the right to vote. This had first been guaranteed to black American males in 1870, with the passage of the 15th Amendment.

FOR the best part of the following 100 years, universal suffrage was systematically obstructed in places such as Selma, where only two per cent of 15,000 black adults could vote. SNCC owed much of its original impetus to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). During King's presidency, it had grant-aided their work; but, by 1965, there was a feeling (not without resentment from some SNCC personnel) that King's alliance needed to put its weight behind the protests.

Aided, no doubt, by the 1963 Washington rally of civil-rights protesters, and by the murder (portrayed in Selma) of four girls, when the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed on 15 September 1963, the time felt ripe to try to march peacefully to the capital of Alabama, Montgomery.

This was met with strong, often violent, opposition, frequently initiated or endorsed by the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, played by Tim Roth in the film. Court procedures, and King's contact with President Lyndon B. Johnson, eventually resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The film is probably less than fair to President Johnson, played in the film by Tom Wilkinson. Arguably, he should go down in history as the US President most sympathetic towards black enfranchisement since Abraham Lincoln. He used all his political cunning to enable the passing into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For Johnson, it was a case of the art of the possible.

In Selma, he tells King: "You have one big issue. I have 101" - such as the Vietnam War. King was not unaware of this contentious subject. In the film, King fulminates against a federal government that can spend millions of dollars in Vietnam, but not protect and defend its own citizens at home who strive for justice and freedom.

THE Voting Rights Act is a landmark achievement; but it was sorely and bravely won, not simply through the power of one man's rhetoric and personal example. Much can be attributed to the strength and determination of the Christian faith of King's followers.

It has been argued that there was no such thing as one civil-rights lobby, only an influential coalition of local churches, and other groups committed to bringing an end to racial segregation. The film pays no real attention to leading figures such as the Revd Jesse Jackson, or King's best friend, the Revd Ralph Abernathy.

We do not hear enough, if anything, of the efforts of other organisations, or the support that the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan gave to their aspirations. King himself seems to have avoided taking personal credit for any successes. He would have been inclined to dismiss the "great-man theory" of some historians, favouring instead the view that change comes about through the insights and energy of myriad actions.

Films, understandably, find it hard to portray mass movements, preferring to centre on the individuals who lead them. I would not want to diminish King's contribution: it just isn't the full story.

Selma, admittedly, takes us behind the scenes. The struggles among the movement's chief workers to decide on appropriate strategies often provide riveting drama in their own right. Some of these episodes will have been derived from subsequent written accounts by participants, but to make them compelling still requires creative dramatisation.

This practice differs little, in effect, from the interpretations that historians make, given the available evidence, although films often make it a great deal more interesting. I doubt, however, whether any prose account of the stand-off between state troopers and black protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, could pack the same emotional punch as is delivered when the actor Oyelowo kneels in prayer.

ELMA also invites us into the private and personal life of its chief protagonist - but to only a limited degree. His four children merit just a mention. His wife, Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo, by turn moderates or encourages her husband.

A scene in which she confronts King with his involvement with other women tells us more about her dignified forbearance than help us understand how he handled his sexuality. "Do you love any others?" Coretta asks. A long silence elapses before she elicits a reluctant "No."

Earlier, we hear the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, tell President Johnson that he considers King an immoral degenerate, and that, for political purposes, they can destabilise this upstart's credibility by exposing his clandestine liaisons.

Selma clearly does not want to besmirch its hero, but feels that it cannot entirely ignore this aspect of King's life. There is no evidence here that it represents a fatal flaw in King's character, an inner conflict that requires the hero's resolution. The film, reflecting public opinion, simply does not allow any detraction from his other virtues.

The Voting Rights Act is not the only significant element of King's struggle to establish equality. He turned much of his later attention to denouncing the Vietnam War, and campaigning for the poorest citizens of the US, until his death on 4 April 1968.

I was living in Harlem that year. I remember that, after the ensuing riots, there emerged other reactions and reflections. Not least was the belief that this killing was politically authorised.

The jury is still out on that - or, to be accurate, it has never been in. James Earl Ray initially admitted guilt. He subsequently withdrew this plea, but all appeals to be re- tried were refused. The term "Black Theology" seems to have been coined in the same year as King's death by the Theological Commission of the National Conference of Black Churchmen.

Exponents such as the African American theologian James H. Cone - although drawing on the work of the civil-rights pioneers - became increasingly sceptical that King's brand of suffering love would, by itself, usher in God's righteousness.

Work continues to be done in the Black Churches on making that paradigm shift from the assertions that people in Harlem's black community used to make, saying that "Niggers ain't shit," to more positive self-understandings, embraced by the slogan "Black is beautiful," which came into prominence during the late 1960s.

It is interesting to speculate whether part of King's legacy has promoted a move towards self-realisation by other groups of oppressed people. Would Latin American liberation theology, with its "option for the poor", have taken off in the early 1970s in the same way if a defining note had not been struck in 1960s Alabama?

And did the quiet determination of black women such as Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey in the film) to register as a voter provide some of the inspiration for the feminist movement and its theologies?

The theologian Sallie McFague, for example, has argued that the besetting sins of women are those of omission: a failure to self-actualise, colluding with male definitions of how they are expected to behave.

I can see parallels with black consciousness. The hermeneutical circle, as employed by liberation theology, contemplates the biblical record, before engaging in action. In this way, oppressed groups struggle to realise what God is willing them to become, and how to effect it.

This does not feel such a far cry from King. His speeches and sermons are informed by the kind of biblical language that enables those listening to heed the demand of Moses to let God's people go.

His is a rallying cry to all who are prepared to employ his form of pacific opposition to shape their futures. Selma is, therefore, a timely examination not just of the issues of 1965, but our own continuing preoccupations.

Selma (Cert. 12A) is on general release at cinemas from today.

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