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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Selma follows the events leading up to 1965's momentous Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march organized by Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to campaign for voters' rights. Narrowly focused on the time leading up to the march, Selma provides a historical context for how each of the group's campaigns concentrated on raising awareness about a different issue in the segregated South. Expect several intense, disturbing scenes of race-based violence perpetrated against the non-violent protesters, including protesters being beaten bloody with sticks, weapons, and even whips. Others are killed, including innocent girls in a church that's blown up. Despite the historically accurate violence and the occasional strong language (ranging from "f--k" and "s--t" to frequent racial slurs) -- as well as a subplot about infidelity -- this is a powerful, educational drama that parents should watch with their mature tweens and teens.
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What's the story?
SELMA follows the three months between Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Dec. 1964 and the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voters' rights in March 1965. King and his cohorts in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference want President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation protecting the voting rights of African Americans in the South, but Johnson (as portrayed here) has other pressing priorities and asks King to wait. But the SCLC -- with help from John Lewis (Stephan James) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) -- eventually goes forward with the march, which was televised, showing the entire nation how cruel and bloodthirsty the Alabama State Troopers were when the group attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As King attempts to lead the movement, he's undermined by the FBI, which tries to destroy his credibility by exposing King's infidelities to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
Is it any good?
Thanks to the fabulous performances, the gripping script, and the important subject matter, Selma is one of the finest films ever made about the civil rights movement. As Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner did with Lincoln, Selma writer-director Ava DuVernay focuses on a very specific time in a legendary historical figure's life, rather than taking a sweeping, generalized look at Martin Luther King Jr.'s whole life. The result is an important drama that's remarkable in scope and relevance to the continued national issues surrounding institutional racism. Oyelowo, who starred in DuVernay's previous feature, may be British, but he's perfectly cast as the civil rights leader, and Ejogo is excellent as Coretta Scott King (she played her before in the critically acclaimed HBO Film Boycott). Together they capture a picture of the Kings that's honest and not idealized. DuVernay doesn't gloss over the fact that the FBI monitored King and exposed his infidelities to Coretta. But his failings as a husband, while worth mentioning, don't take away from the importance of his work.
What's especially powerful about Selma is that it's not all-consumingly grim and upsetting (although there are a few nearly unbearable moments when it's hard not to cry). Yes, there are white supremacists yelling the "N" word and beating nonviolent protestors, but there are also bits of humor -- like when King and a seemingly never-ending group of friends descend on a preacher's home for his wife's cooking, or when Johnson tells Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) exactly what history will say about him. There's even romance -- like the Kings dancing in their Nobel Prize gala finery. In addition to Oyelowo, Wilkinson, and Ejogo, standout performances include James as the young John Lewis, Wendell Pierce as Reverend Hosea Williams, and Oprah Winfrey as a woman who's unable to register to vote.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most influential people of the 20th century. What is the lasting legacy of the civil rights movement? How have things changed since 1965 when Selma takes place? How haven't they?
How do the lessons from the civil rights movement apply today? Are people still discriminated against? How can that be remedied? What methods could kids today use to protest injustice? What are the differences between a protest and a riot? How does the media typically depict protests?
Why are voters' rights still in the news? Are you interested in learning more about civil rights and how they're still being fought for in the United States? How could you do that?
Some have criticized Selma for bending the truth in the way certain figures in the movie are portrayed -- particularly President Johnson. Why might filmmakers not adhere strictly to the facts? Do you think that undermines the movie's message in any way? How could you find out more about the actual events and people portrayed in the film?
- In theaters: December 25, 2014
- On DVD or streaming: May 5, 2015
- Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
- Director: Ava DuVernay
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Boy Role Models, History
- Character strengths: Courage, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control
- Run time: 122 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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