Selma Film Highlights Struggle for Voting Rights
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Selma's History Lesson

Opening nationally in early January, the new film Selma focuses on a key event in the fight for voting rights: the March 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. The much-anticipated film provides students with an excellent opportunity for a history lesson and discussion about the civil rights movement.

"It was really important that we adorned [King] in the film with this band of brothers and sisters who really made it happen. You can be a leader, but if there's no one following you, then what are you doing?"
Selma director Ava DuVernay



Produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films, directed by Ava DuVernay, and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., Selma opens nationwide on January 9, 2015.

Why cover the Selma to Montgomery march on the big screen? The famous march was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Graphically depicted in the film, state and local police wielding tear gas, nightsticks, and bullwhips severely beat civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965, in what came to be called "Bloody Sunday." Thanks to television coverage, many Americans viewed the violence unleashed by police on unarmed and peaceful protestors at Selma and came to support the protestors' cause. A subsequent march a few weeks later, during March 21–25,  proceeded peacefully, and in August the Voting Rights Act passed.

Rather than create a biopic spanning King's entire life, Selma filmmakers opted to focus on the events of March 1965 as a critical point in the civil rights movement and to emphasize the collaborative efforts behind the march, which was instigated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's John Lewis, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and other activists. As director DuVernay has said, "It was really important that we adorned [King] in the film with this band of brothers and sisters who really made it happen. You can be a leader, but if there's no one following you, then what are you doing?" This emphasis highlights the fact that progress made in the civil rights movement was made by the many, not the few.

Following Selma's December 25 limited release, former Lyndon B. Johnson aides have criticized the film for underplaying the president's role in getting the Voting Rights Act passed; director DuVernay maintains that the portrayal is accurate, saying that Johnson had to be "pushed" to act. The commentary "LBJ's Role" in the menu link at left by law professor Kareem U. Crayton looks at the action Johnson did take and discusses how he built on the momentum provided by the Selma to Montgomery march to help move the Voting Rights Act through Congress and eventually sign it into law.

This Reel to Real resource provides the background to put Selma in its time and place in U.S. history. The "Selma's Context" menu link at left includes the official Selma trailer and key reference entries related to the struggle for voting rights, including a Background Essay by Christopher P. Lehman, author of Power, Politics, and the Decline of the Civil Rights Movement: A Fragile Coalition, 1967–1973 (Praeger, 2014), providing context for the Selma to Montgomery march. Also included is the text of the Voting Rights Act and Johnson's March 15 speech, given as King and his allies fought a court battle over the march.

ABC-CLIO

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