“We negotiate. We demonstrate. We resist.” A weary Martin Luther King Jr. (portrayed with gravity and grace by David Oyelowo) delivers this phrase over and over again during a pivotal scene in Ava DuVernay’s poignant Selma. The film, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but was shut out of all of the other major categories, centers around 1965’s Selma Voting Rights Movement, and offers a nuanced portrayal of political activism, media manipulation, and the intersection of both in regards to race.
On August 28, 2013, President Obama posed with 5-year-old Yolanda Renee King, MLK’s granddaughter, at the Lincoln Memorial. It was the 50th anniversary of MLK’s March on Washington, where he famously delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, and the event was intended to show how far the nation had come: one moderate black leader honoring another, history and progress uniting at last.
During the closing months of 2014, police officers weren’t indicted in the deaths of two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The former verdict kicked off another round of #Ferguson protests; the latter saw the use of Garner’s last words, #ICantBreathe, as the slogan for yet more protests.
Today, America spends a day honoring King (for the 28th time—the holiday was first observed in 1986, though not by all of the states). The fact that the holiday was created at all is largely due to King’s endearing legacy: that of the non-violent activist, who condemned violent action by protesters no matter how high the stakes, no matter how cruel the oppressor.
This legacy is not entirely accurate. While King did advocate for non-violent protests, the key word here is still “protests”: the active disruption of the peace to raise awareness and inspire action. It is Henry David Thoreau’s civil disobedience in action, directed not at tax collection but instead at daily injustices. The choice to work in that way had much less to do with a desire to appease white America and much more to do with a need to inspire multilateral support for his specific causes, while protecting activists from a society that looked for any excuse to shut the civil rights movement down. King chooses Selma not because it’s the most pivotal city in the fight for equal rights; he chooses Selma because it offers the best chance to shock and enervate an uneasy American public. And when a New York Times reporter asks him whether he’s concerned that a non-violent protest might inspire violence, King fixes him with the look of a man who knows he’s being asked the wrong question.
It’s easy to simplify King’s legacy to solely a call for non-violence, especially since King, the beloved pastor with the Nobel Prize, had a natural foil in Malcolm X, the fiery minister with Black Panther affiliations. Selma touches upon the tension between the activist leaders in an explosive scene where King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, meets with X and then vouches for him to her jailed husband. “He called me an Uncle Tom!” King exclaims, clearly furious about the accusation.
Cinematic tension aside, X’s introduction and subsequent departure from the film bring up the growing understanding that while the leaders themselves were far from friends, their teams worked together to define the black American activist narrative for a wary and unsettled public. For King’s message to connect, there had to be the threat of escalation: look what happens when non-violence is denied.
And with X’s death in 1965, the film delves into the later years of King’s life. Watching King choose to begin a protest in Selma and not Washington, gives us insight into the day-to-day realities, versus soundbite-friendly bursts, of activism. King has to court the media, assuage his constituents, convert disbelievers, and barter with none other than President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War—all while maintaining the facade of a leader who knows it all, who has seen the mountaintop and must work toward that promise. When the march to Montgomery has two false starts, King worries as much about public sentiment as he does about the lives of his rallied activists.
Selma does an excellent job of peeling back the layers of King’s persona: the righteous man of God; the grim activist tactician; the worried father; the flawed husband. It doesn’t shy away from the iron will he exercises in order to achieve his goals, or the canny he exudes as he sets up media-friendly centerpieces. Though the film doesn’t delve into his more radical beliefs, such as his anti-capitalist sentiments and vehement opposition of the Vietnam War, or his 1968 campaign against economic inequality, it presents a man whose commitment to non-violence is a function of both his faith and his logic, and whose legacy continues to be relevant on the street, in the courthouse, and in the public discourse.