In “Selma,” directed by the very skilled Ava DuVernay, there is a touching, late-night scene when a deeply troubled Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) leaves the warmth of his bed to call a sleeping woman. Connected by Ma Bell’s telephone lines, which were being tapped by the FBI and other government agencies, one can only speculate the impact that this particular conversation had on the listeners, so eager to uncover incriminating evidence of a turn toward violence instead of the peaceful protests they continued, despite the increased and bloody violence that the marchers received at the hands of police officers and other hateful, murderous troublemakers.
This late-night call to soothe his aching soul was made to his friend, legendary gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson. The scene is poignant. Jackson’s powerful voice is muted by the early rise from slumber, her voice cracking out the notes. King grips the phone, his ear pressed to the receiver. His eyes closed. Tears struggle down his cheeks as if exhaling like a man being found in a unforgiving desert and feeling the cold water washing over his pain. The scene shouts volumes and places a fine, chiseled point on a finer head.
Admit it or not, we have sought that kind of support in the middle of a tempest, when doubt creeped up and you were in that fight between yourself and yourself. Music soothes, aspires, motivates and connects.
Following logic, music was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Jackson was at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1963, cementing yet another place for her musical legacy. There she performed as the lead-in to King and his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Music man Common played an important role in “Selma.” Here is what he had to share about being a part of this film project:
“Well, it’s a beautiful honor to be a part of ‘Selma’ because as a kid, I think the first person that I read about and came across that Black people and white people both recognize as a hero was Dr. Martin Luther King. There was a point in my life where, you know, I became interested in Malcolm X and it was like, ‘I don’t know, Martin may be soft.’ But you know, as I grew and evolved as a human being, I realized that this peaceful protest is one of the strongest things you can do, and the strength that it took to do that.
“Me being involved in ‘Selma’ taught me that it was women, it was men, it was children, it was a spirit that they said, ‘We want freedom, we want justice,’ and a lot of people contributed to that. So I’m just grateful to be” part of that.
“Selma” chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when King led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Lyndon Johnson (played in “Selma” by Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the Civil Rights Movement. DuVernay’s “Selma” tells the story of how a revered leader and visionary, along with his brothers and sisters in the movement, prompted change that forever altered history.