In one of many elegantly filmed yet emotionally raw scenes in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed with fire and unforced tenacity by (Oscar-snubbed) David Oyelowo, leads a church in a refrain of “No more!” This chant is in opposition to the violence, political oppression and social dehumanization perpetuated throughout 1960s America. “No more,” for Dr. King and his followers and supporters, means action. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”
Even now as I type out the transcript of the scene’s dialogue, I can hear Oyelowo’s commanding voice bellow out the call to fervent commitment.
The film’s best scenes are haunting and intransigent; I doubt I will ever forget, much like I have never forgotten the baptism scene in The Godfather, or the ring scene in Schindler’s List, the closing shots of Selma, as Dr. King, standing triumphantly before the Montgomery state house, leads the crowd in a hymn of “Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on!” It’s a scene that not only crystallizes the why of Dr. King’s mission, but also, quite unfortunately, brings the mind to how far we have yet to go, in light of recent events and tragedies, to truly achieving Dr. King’s vision of peace, of equality, of love striking down, once and for all, the routinely entrenched and irrevocably vile history of America and human hate.
Selma is surely one of 2014’s finest films, and, even in a year that includes such treasures as Boyhood and The Imitation Game, it might actually be the best film. It certainly didn’t triumph at the Oscars; the aforementioned snub of Oyelowo and of director Ava DuVerney are perhaps the Academy’s most glaring and most poignant in years. But Selma is significant, not merely because it is a great film, or an award-deprived film, or even an emotional film, but also because it is an important film. It’s a film that challenges us to consciously observe and criticize our modern culture. It’s a film that, much like The Imitation Game of this year, and Lincoln and The Iron Lady of years past, asks us to reflect on the life of the primary figure, and consider the impact of their lives and also their deaths, their visions, their philosophies, their triumphs and their failures.
For those of us attending Ohio Northern University, the film grants us a particularly unique opportunity to reflect on Jan. 11, 1968, the date on which Dr. King made one of his final speeches in Ada at ONU. The events of Selma take place in 1964; Dr. King’s speech at ONU was four years after his triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery. It was one of Dr. King’s final speeches, as he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, a few months after his speech at ONU.
While Dr. King was a high-profile activist and leader, ONU is still among a small minority who can claim that he gave a speech on their campus. We are uniquely not only to have this history, but to have so many of the details and finer points of the occasion preserved so well and be so easily accessible. While details of the speech are available in many locations online, ONU’s own website has several web pages devoted to the occasion that contain transcripts as well as video and audio logs.
Selma is the rare film to be both aesthetically and cinematically brilliant, while maintaining an authentic and vital historical sensibility. I highly recommend not only seeing the film and contemplating upon its importance in today’s times, but also researching Dr. King’s visit to ONU and the rest of his life. He, a flawed and limited man, still ought to resonate in our hearts and social minds as we work towards that mountaintop of equality, justice and triumphant love.