Selma, Lord, Selma (1999)

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Director: Charles Burnett.

Starring:  Cast: Jurnee Smollett, Clifton Powell, Mackenzie Astin, Yolanda King, Stephanie Zandra Peyton

Made for TV. 

Based on the memoirs of Sheyann Webb-Christburg and Rachel West Nelson. Two schoolgirls decide to join in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the march they face a dastardly police charge. (In the movie is Yolanda King, daughter of Dr. King.)

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. is being driven over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama.  The men in the front seats point out some of the places where they are going to have to make some changes. A bus bench has a sign on it saying "white only".  The blacks waiting for the bus stand around the bench, but can't sit on it.  King remarks:  "We're gonna change Selma so that both Negroes and whites can sit together."

Two young girls, Sheyann Webb and her friend Rachel West, are jumping rope when the car carrying King shows up in front of the church.  Sheyann, called Shey, is curious why people are going to church on a Monday morning?  Rachel says she overheard her parents saying that it's a freedom meeting and Dr. King's will be there.  Shey wants to see, and maybe meet, Dr. King.  She did a report on him for school.  So, instead of going to school, she decides to sneak into the church and listen to King.   Rachel warns her:  "You'll catch it good, if you cut school, Sheyann!"

The pastor introduces King to the meeting.  King mentions that although the blacks make up 50% percent of the population of Selma only 2% of them are even registered to vote.  Shey makes noise when she sets her books down on the church bench and Mrs. Blythe turns around to investigate.  When she sees Shey, she tells her that this is an adult meeting only.  Jimmy Lee says she's going to catch the devil for skipping school.  King notices Shey and tells her to come up front with him.  She tells him about the report she wrote and asks him to sign it.  King reads parts of the paper to the adults and makes some humorous comments about his glowing portrayal in the report.  He then asks Shey if she knows any songs from the movement?  She knows "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round".  Kings asks her to come to the meeting tonight to sing that song for the group. 

Shey tries to sneak into class, but Miss Bright sees her and asks her where she's been?  Shey explains where she was, but the teacher says she will have to stay in at recess to catch up on the morning's work.  At recess Shey tries to talk to the teacher about Dr. King and the movement, but Miss Bright says she should leave these matters to older people. 

As Shey and Rachel walk home from school, they met a divinity student named Jonathan Daniels.  He wants to know where the Wests live.  Rachel tells him that's her house and it's right over there.  Jonathan explains he has come all the way from New Hampshire on a trip that took him two days.  He has been invited to stay with the West family while he is in town.  The student meets Mrs. West, who invites him into the house.  Jonathan says he came to Selma as the result of King's call for volunteers. 

Rev. Daniels goes to see Father Whitaker.  He tells Whitaker that he is a student at Keene Seminary and Father Van Dyne told him about his old friend Father Whitaker.  The father is warm to Jonathan until he says he has come down to work for the civil rights movement.  He wants to help people register to vote.  The father tells him:  "You're gonna find the majority of Negroes don't want to vote.  The last thing we need are Northerners comin' down here and stirrin' the kettle."  He goes on to tell Jonathan that he doesn't know anything about the South.  Jonathan gets the "hint" and cuts his visit very short. 

At dinner with the West family, Mrs. West tells Jonathan that the establishment in Selma doesn't want anything to change and she warns him about Sheriff Pots.  After dinner Rachel and Shey walk to church.  They are stopped by Sheriff Pots who tries to scare them away from church by telling them that in Birmingham, Alabama, somebody put a bomb in a black church and killed four little girls.  But nothing is going to keep Shey from singing for the meeting. 

King is explaining to Jimmy Lee that John and Hosea will be running the Selma movement while he is away.  King greets the two small girls and talks to them about what they are marching for:  freedom.  In his speech King invokes love and non-violence as the guides for those fighting for freedom.  Then he has Shey come up and sing her song.  She does a very good job and gets the audience singing along with her. After her song, Rachel gives her a big congratulatory embrace.  King says that they will start marching tomorrow to the courthouse. 

They see the march as a way to emphasize to President Johnson and Congress that they must have the voting rights bill.  Jonathan meets King and keeps tripping over his own tongue in his presence.  King laughs and tells Jonathan that he's glad to have him here.  Then Jonathan is introduced to Jimmy Lee Jackson who works in his hometown of Marion, Alabama to register black voters. 

Shey's parents talk about Shey singing for Dr. King.  Dad doesn't like it when he hears about Shey cutting school, but Mrs. Webb is happy that Shey is finally taking an interest in current events and is asking questions.  Dad says they already lost one daughter, Vivian, because of the movement and he doesn't want to lose Shey to it.  He goes up to Shey and she asks him to get involved in the movement himself.  Dad says Shey is too young and he doesn't want her involved in the movement. 

Jonathan drives to Brown Chapel and finds three Ku Klux Klan members preparing to light a cross in front of the church.  He tells them to stop it, but one of the men tells him that they don't like outsiders.  He gets closer and closer to Jonathan until Jonathan turns to get away from him.  He reports it to the police, but they dismiss the report saying there hasn't been any Klan activity around Selma for some twenty years.  Jonathan insists they go take a look, so one of the police officers tells Jonathan that he has come to Selma just to stir up trouble.  He tells the reverend to turn around and go back up north.  Jonathan insists he wants this incident on the record.  So the policeman just delays this, by making Jonathan look through all the many mug shots to see if he recognizes anyone, even though the officer knows that the men were all wearing hoods. 

A white woman name Sallie who is sympathetic to the movement tells Jonathan to be careful because there are still lynchings and disappearances in Selma.  In the morning there is a large group looking at the remains of the burnt cross.  Rachel and Shey are there.  After awhile, Rachel says they have to go to school, but Shey says she is staying and marching with Rev. King.  King arrives and begins the march.  The participants sing the Kumbaya song. 

The police greet them with batons in hand at the courthouse.  Sheriff Pots comes out to tell the demonstrators that no more than three of them can gather at a time.  King says they have come to register these people to vote, but Pots says the registration can't handle all these people at once.  The matter is complicated further by the registration office being only open two days a month.   Mrs. Blythe asks permission to enter to register and Pots tells her to go right ahead.  Once inside Mrs. Blythe is shocked and amazed at the test to get to register to vote.  She has to guess how many jelly beans there are in a huge glass jar.  She walks out to the crowd and says that the voting test is an insult.  Sheriff Pots puts her under arrest for insisting on her rights.  A black man says the sheriff is a racist and Pots hits him right in the gut.  Pots now turns on Shey and tells her to get out of here and go to school.  King tells the sheriff that he may have the law on his side, but they have morality on their side.  Pots now forces everyone to leave.

Shey comes casually walking into the classroom and Miss Bright is shocked to see that she has cut school again.  But this time Shey stands up for herself and for the movement saying all they wanted to do was to register to vote.  She then asks:  "Why the sheriff and the white folks gotta make is to hard?"  Miss Bright warns her:  "Sheyann, we do not discuss that in school."  But then she softens and says she will comment on the subject.  She says the whites want things to stay as they are, so that they can have control. 

Rev. King has been arrested and is being held in jail.  Jonathan was also arrested, but he is let go after a brief stay in jail.  The West parents tell Jonathan to wait until he gets knocked on the head by a policeman.  Then he will be a real veteran of the movement.  Jimmy Lee and Willie come along and tell the reverend that they should go and get more blacks to register. 

At school Miss Bright says that the teachers held a meeting and they decided to march.  Therefore, there will be no school today.  Shey is very excited and goes down to watch the teachers march to the courthouse.  Pots hears about it and is very anxious to stop the march, but the mayor tells him they can't have the teachers locked up in jail.  He comments:  "This marchin' business isn't gonna last.  I'm just gonna let it burn itself out."

The black children wait in a long line to fill cups with water from the colored only drinking fountain.  So, Shey decides to break the law and fill her cup at the whites only fountain.  A young white man in the building sees her do this and comes to yell at her:  "Put that back!  You got your own fountain, tar baby.  You're just tryin' to take over, ain't ya?"  He then knocks the cup of water out of Shey's hand.  She is so shocked that she just walks away. 

Later Shey asks Jonathan to talk to her father about joining the movement.  Jonathan says he will talk to her dad.  Mr. West accompanies Jonathan in talking to Mr. Webb.  But Webb says that he had to send his oldest daughter up north to get her away from the dangers of the movement.  Webb is so determined not to budge that West quickly gives up trying to convince him.  But Jonathan continues arguing with the man.  So West has to, in part, pull Jonathan away from Webb. 

Jonathan, Jimmy Lee and Willie talk to black men to get their support.  At one of the discussions, the white boss comes over to tell Jonathan to get off his property.  When Jonathan persists, the boss says:  "I shoot trespassers!"  Jimmy Lee pulls Jonathan away and says that maybe they'll have better luck in Marion. 

Shey awakes one morning to hear her mother say:  "Oh, my God!"  A police officer shot Jimmy Lee to death when he tried to save his mother and grandfather  from a beating.  Jonathan saw it happen.  He is very upset as is most of the others in the movement.  King speaks at the funeral for Jimmy Lee Jackson. 

Daniels's car breaks down.  The conversation turns to Jimmy Lee.  Jonathan talks about what happened when Jimmy Lee was killed.  They had a permit to march but the police were determined to prevent this.  The reverend knelt down to pray and a state trooper hit him with a baton across his back.  Then all the state troopers seemed to become crazed bullies.  Jimmy Lee was trying to protect his mother then he saw his grandfather being hit over and over again.  Jimmy Lee intervened and ended up struggling with a trooper.  That's when the trooper shot him. 

Late at night Shey writes her obituary.   Her mother asks her what's she doing up?  Shey says she's afraid of dying.  Mom tells her she's not dying and she's not going to die.  Everybody just has to be careful.  Shey, however, asks a good question:  "But how are we supposed to get our freedom if everybody's careful?" 

Father Whitaker says hello to Jonathan and Jonathan again wastes his breath on the father.  The man is still a segregationist.  Later Sheriff Potts confronts Jonathan calling him a white nigger.  Jonathan just says:  "Yes, I am!"

King has to go to Washington, D. C. for the movement and he wonders if they should postpone the scheduled 50 mile long walk from Selma to Montgomery.  John, Hosea and the local reverend of the church used as a headquarters urge him to go.  They will start the march as planned.  King goes to Washington.  Complications arise, however.  Governor Wallace of Alabama rescinds the planned march to Montgomery.  The march planners decides the march must go on.  Shey gets permission from her parents to march.  Mom says she is so proud of her daughter. 

Pots prepares for confrontation.  The marchers learn how to defend themselves against tear gas as best they can.  The march begins and they start crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The police are waiting for them on the other side.  The marchers are a bit intimidated by the show of force, but they keep coming.  The order is for the troopers to advance and break "these people" up.  Soon the police start beating people with batons and wooden walking canes.  The police loose control and pursue the fleeing people, now trying to punish them for their audacity to march against segregation.  Shey gets caught up in it.  She falls to the sidewalk and starts calling for her mother.  Jonathan comes along and picks her up to carry her to her parents.  This brutal reaction from the police is something that Shey never anticipated and she is shocked and scared. 

During the night, Sheyann goes over to the church to check on the wounded marchers.  She wants to help but Jonathan says they are doing alright now.  But Shey thinks that maybe a song might cheer the people up.  So she starts singing the song she sang at the march meeting.  And once again, she has the audience signing along with her. 

President Johnson on television says:  "There is no cause for pride  in what has happened in Selma and the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans.  And the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government  --  the government of the greatest nation on Earth.  There is no Negro problem.  There is no Southern problem.  There is only an American problem.  The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill.  Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races.  Because all Americans just must have the right to vote and we are going to give them that right." 

Some people want to march again, but downtown is closed off to all marchers.  Shey asks Jonathan if he is going down to the "Selma wall" and Jonathan says yes.  He will see her down there after he gives some blacks a ride.  He has to stop at a gas station and the owner asks him why he is hanging around black people?  Jonathan says we should all treat blacks just like any other American.  The man gets mad when he hears this and takes the hose out of the gasoline tank and pours gasoline all over Jonathan's pants.  When Jonathan pays the bill and gets back in the car, he tells Willie that he thinkd this man was one of those Klansmen who burned the cross in front of Brown chapel. 

There is a protest against the wall and Miss Bright and Shey are both there.  Jonathan puts up posters about registering.  A policeman arrives in a police car.  He tells the reverend that he and Willie are under arrest for defacing property.  Jonathan protests, but the policeman asks if Jonathan is talking back to him?.

The man from the gas station shoots and kills Jonathan Daniels in Marion.  Mom has to tell Shey that Jonathan has been killed.   King speaks at the funeral.  Father Whitaker attends the service.  King gives his condolences to Jonathan's family.  Shey and Rachel pay their respects. 

Miss Bright talks to the two girls.  She tries to cheer up the girls up by telling them that Jonathan would want them to have more faith in the movement, rather than less.  Jimmy Lee and Jonathan are both watching over the girls to see what they will do.  Later Shey's father shows her the shoes that he will be wearing as he marches with his daughter in the next walk.  She is very happy to hear that. 

King leads a march from Selma to Montgomery.  They pass over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and get past the police presence on the other side, because the mayor orders Pots to tear down the police barricades. 

"On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law."

"Sheyann Webb-Christburg directs a youth program for children of all races.  She lives in Montgomery, Alabama'. 

"Rachel West Nelson lives in Selma, Alabama with her family.  Her brother is a two-term city councilman."

"Each year, on the third Sunday inn February, a memorial service is held in Marion in honor of Jimmie Lee Jackson."

"The Episcopal Church canonized Jonathan Daniels in 1994, including him in its Calendar of Saints."

 

The movie is more for children than adults and you can tell because Sheyann is always asking questions about this or that.  For adultx, however, my wife and I found it a bit tiresome and boring.  We already know what's going on.  A lot of the film dwelled on Sheyann's reaction to some of the more disturbing things that happened in her home town of Selma, Alabama.  I think there was too much focus on the child's reaction.  Since many of the scenes are upsetting even to adults, sometimes it would have been enough to see the scenes themselves without focusing deeply on any one's reaction(s) to it. The star of the movie should have been the events themselves, rather on any one person.  And in Disney pictures you often feel they are trying to make a tear-jerker out of the movie or they are trying to manipulate your feelings too much. 

Jurnee Smollett was good as Sheyann, but again she's in a Disney movie.  I didn't think Clifton Powell fit the part of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his character paid too much attention to the cute little girl. 

On the other hand, the movie does show a number of the ugly aspects of segregation in Alabama.  I think the voting registration test of guessing how many jelly beans are in a huge glass jar is a classic of the absurdity of southern justifications for their racist behavior.  (However, the movie did not do justice in communicating to the audience just how disturbing the images from the police riot were to many Americans!  It helped pass civil rights legislation!)  (I myself remember being very shocked and upset at the Alabama police and the way they behaved toward men, women and children.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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