By Alex Gibson
An early scene in Selma depicts Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, sitting in an Alabama courthouse. She nervously approaches the window and hands in a completed voter registration form. The white man behind the counter, who has clearly thwarted her previous attempts at voter registration, studies her form. He looks up and challenges her to recite the preamble to the Constitution. She does so perfectly from memory. Annoyed, he asks her how many county judges there are in Alabama. Sixty-seven, she answers confidently, probably having been stumped last time. The man sneers back at her, “Name them,” he says.
When she cannot, the man stamps DENIED on her registration form, and she is sent away again.
Though by 1965, all Americans technically had the right to vote, experiences like Cooper’s (and worse) were extremely common in the South. African Americans were met with derision, oppression, institutional obstacles, and violence when trying to register to vote. As a result, masses of black people were disenfranchised and denied a basic American right. The marches from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights Leaders of the time, eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voter registration and is considered one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement.
When Selma opens nationwide on January 9, it will be making history for a couple of reasons. Not only is it the first studio film about Dr. King, but it has also garnered director Ava DuVernay with a Golden Globe nod, making her the first African-American woman to be nominated. She will make history again if nominated for an Academy Award this month.
DuVernay recently visited Philadelphia for a pre-holiday screening of Selma, and I was honored to speak with her about her film and activism for African-American filmmakers.