Analysis of Effect of Martin Luther King's Speeches in the Movie 'Selma': Essay

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This essay will explore the effect of Martin Luther King’s speeches in ‘Selma’. His emphasis on community power shows the success of peacebuilding from the bottom-up. Indeed, the technique of non-violent protests and the media’s portrayal of the aggression protestors faced forced political action at the highest levels to occur.

In ‘Selma’, King delivers his speeches in the distinct Southern gospel style of speaking. David Oyelowo, who played King, mastered the southern inflections and the musicality that made Martin Luther King's speeches so powerful. Due to copyright laws, the movie was unable to quote King's speeches. However, the writer, Paul Webb, reimagines the speeches whilst keeping the preacherly cadences and rhythms that deeply engaged King's audience, riling them up with passion for the cause. Webb even uses King's technique of call and response in his script. Call and response ‘are a tradition that West African slaves brought with them to the Americas’. Therefore, it reminds King's black audience of their origins and how far they have come, and a present-day audience recalls the oppression of African Americans, which should be in the past but continues in modern society. Although Webb's scriptwriting is eloquent, the rewritten speeches lose many of the religious meanings that were central to King’s message. This shifts the focus onto the vital subject of black rights, making the movie more universal to a 2015 audience who might not appreciate all of the religious implications. However, this modification undermines the importance of religious peacebuilding. Indeed, Maria Pilar Aquino emphasizes the significance of a faith-based bottom-up peacebuilding approach, which King utilized by attaching moral and religious values to his arguments for black rights. By keeping the moral high ground through non-violent protests and imbuing his speeches with religious meaning, so that his acts and words were religiously justified, King generated power and attention that led to political change. Therefore, by rewriting King’s speeches devoid of much religious language, the movie undermines the importance of religious peacebuilding in the civil rights movement.

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The movie juxtaposes King's grassroots protest work against the political lobbying of the White House. However, the director, Ava DuVernay, chooses to villainize the political men. This undermines the liberal peacebuilding approach, which suggests that peace is created by the political elite ratifying laws. Not only does the movie diminish the importance of political leaders, but it negatively skews the perception of President Johnson. Indeed, ‘Selma’ suggests that Johnson's priority for the 'eradication of poverty' ignored black issues when in fact, it helped benefit both impoverished blacks and whites. Johnson helped massively with the civil rights movement, having signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. However, after signing the act, Johnson had to appease the rest of the population and not just the black demographic. The movie does not portray the political intricacies that Johnson was under. DuVernay places too much emphasis on King and Johnson's relationship, allowing only one of these men to be the moral hero. By removing the need for a white savior in the civil rights narrative, DuVernay has given her audience a black savior. This is unsurprising as DuVernay claimed that her movie was supposed to be about the African American people. By making the movie King-centered, DuVernay unfairly tarnishes Johnson's reputation to succeed in showing how the pressure from the grassroots level forced politicians to act.

‘Selma’ explores how the media portrayed non-violent protests. It is evident in the movie that King specifically chooses the location of Selma because of the brutal law enforcement at the hands of the racist governor, George Wallace. King understands the power of visual media to sway public opinion, and realizes that the clash between the violent police and peaceful protest will create a newsworthy story, and communicate the black struggle to the American people. Indeed, John Kirk argues that “the [televised] Selma campaign brought a support from northern whites and action from the federal government”. This is certainly accurate, as, in the 1960s, most Americans had access to the television and could no longer ignore the issue of police brutality towards African Americans, when it was being broadcasted to them from their sofas. The staging of Bloody Sunday in Selma stirs similar emotions to how people at the time must have felt watching the event. The scene depicts the intensity and chaos of the violence that the peaceful protestors endured. During the scene, the movie cuts to the reactions of horrified viewers watching the news. This shows how movie can witness violence and create empathy by opening up our ability to imagine others' experiences. However, Selma not only bears witness to the past but shows us the reality of the present. The movie finishes with the song 'Glory', which includes the lyrics “that's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up”. This references a shooting in 2014, so the song shows how far the civil rights movement has come and how far it has to go. Selma becomes a witness to past violence and a reminder to a present-day audience of the continuous fight for black rights.

In conclusion, although ‘Selma’ may not capture the true religious nature of King’s speeches and may have some historical inaccuracies, it is most successful in having an impact on the modern-day viewer. It is a reminder of past violence and forces one to reflect upon the difficulties that all races face in the fight for equality in modern society.

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