Women were on the front lines of the civil rights movement — everyone knows how Rosa Parks sat down on that bus. And yet, their roles as leaders and organizers have been less visible. Newspaper headlines at the time identified Parks as a seamstress, as if she were a mere bystander who just got fed up that day. In fact, she had been an organizer in the movement long before her act of defiance. Like Parks, many women at the time were deeply engaged in on-the-ground organizing, but not recognized as leaders by the movement or by history.
One of the biggest triumphs of director Ava DuVernay’s Selma is how she reverses that erasure: Her film, which centers on the march Martin Luther King Jr. led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1964, has women in nearly every frame. There’s Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King, of course. But, also on the front lines are Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper and Lorraine Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton. They suffer blows from the police onscreen. They are participants in scenes of organization and discussion. In other words, their presence is felt.
The film’s first casualties are four little girls, the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. The opening scene, like an impatient mother, hurries them down the stairs. The flights are short and circular, and the effect is dizzying. All the while, you know what is going to happen (whether you remember the history or just feel the building tension), and as you dread it, they chatter about girl things. The film doesn’t tell you their names — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair — before the explosion comes.
The lingering horror of that sequence is the best example of what’s good about Selma. It is a film that takes awfully familiar things and shows them to you from a different vantage point. The events of the film are freighted with historical consequence. They elicit the sort of deep emotion that only a trauma imposed by the brute force of an entire country can stir up. DuVernay is up to the task, throughout, of giving life to this story in unusual ways, of keeping your head from turning away from the violence. She has an able partner in that in David Oyelowo, the British actor who plays Martin Luther King himself, whose agonized performance manages to be subtle even when he’s blustering at the podium. He will get a lot of deserved plaudits for that.
DuVernay gets the credit for taking a story that could have been told from the perspective of powerful men — MLK, or LBJ in the White House — and focusing it on men and women on the streets. She came to the project late. The original script, for a film about the marches in Selma, had evidently been circulating for some time. In its first incarnation, written by a British man named Peter Webb, the locus of the action was apparently the White House. DuVernay changed that. “[A]s the daughter of a man from Montgomery, I was interested in the people on the ground,” she told Deadline Hollywood. “It was important to me that the script viewed that energy of the people, so that was my focus.”
Most of the women in the film do not have many lines. The exception is Ejogo’s Coretta. By way of that character, DuVernay seems to be hinting at how much work there is left to do on the position of women in the movement. Coretta is a dilemma of a person: She is both her own woman and a key figure in the movement, but also one who gets sidelined by her husband. As the film shows her, she spent much of King's time in Selma at the other end of the phone. She is angry with him, but poised, beautiful, and calm at the same time. She is the home that he is only half committed to.
One reason for that half commitment was, of course, King’s philandering. The movie addresses this but dithers over it. We’re never shown King cheating; we’re only told about it. And DuVernay’s script suggests that much of the rumors were trumped up by the FBI in an effort to discredit King. That’s in large part true, but it’s not the whole of it. In some ways, that perspective mirrors how Coretta herself treated the subject. As late as 1993, she would insist to the press that she did not know anything of King’s infidelities. And yet, by then, King biographers and historians had uncovered the truth, what one of his aides, Ralph Abernathy, called his “weakness for women.”
Coretta's role in these events was sometimes open to interpretation. She was important to the movement, but her importance often took subtle forms. As the movie shows you, for example, she met Malcolm X in Selma, and heard from him that he had come because he hoped that if “the white people understood what the alternative was, that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband.” It was not quite the orchestrated summit encounter the movie chooses to depict, though. Instead of a hushed meeting over a church altar, her connection with Malcolm occurred as he leaned over to her at a speaking event, as Coretta recalled it in 1988. The encounter was brief, but it came only weeks before he was assassinated. And, she was so struck by it, she said later to an oral historian that when Malcolm died, she “had this pain almost like, this feeling in my chest, a feeling of depression, and, ah, just feeling as if, ah, I had lost someone very dear to me.”
The contrast between the brevity of the encounter and the weight it took on for Coretta tells you something about how rich the stakes were at the time of the Selma march. For every person who attended — not just the ostensible “leaders,” but the others, too — every little step, every bit of kindness and solidarity was momentous.