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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, seven years before I was born. Looking at Wikipedia now, I see that the holiday that honors him was signed into law in 1983, and first celebrated in 1986 (when I was ten years old), though I don't actually remember a time when the holiday didn't exist. Still, I've never known much about the man except that he was a great leader in the Civil Rights movement, and of course I was aware of his "I Have a Dream" speech. That speech was given in 1963, but this movie begins in 1964, when Dr. King (played by David Oyelowo) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After that, there are various events that clearly show just how necessary the movement was. Of course, it started years before the brief focus of the movie, and continued for years afterwards, but the film does an amazing job of presenting one particular struggle within the movement. (There has been some criticism of its not being entirely historically accurate, particularly in its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a man I knew even less about than Dr. King. But of course, as has also been pointed out, it's not meant to be a documentary, and artistic license is commonly taken with historical dramas.)
So... I'm not quite sure how much to say about the plot. Basically, at this point in history, African Americans were legally allowed to vote, but that right was routinely being blocked by local officials. I suppose that was happening in many places around the country, but the movie focuses on Selma, Alabama. The main antagonist of the film is Alabama's governor, George Wallace, who was opposed to the movement of which Dr. King was a part. But there were lots of characters (well, real people) on both sides of the conflict (and in the middle of it), most of whom I never really got to know much about. We do see a fair amount of Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King. And we see a bit of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who it seems would have been happy to have Dr. King killed, if President Johnson would have allowed it. But he also had a plan to discredit Dr. King for having marital affairs, though as far as I could tell from the movie, nothing much ever came of that. (But we do frequently see text appear on screen that apparently represents reports of the FBI's surveillance of Dr. King, including a phone tap.) There was also some strife within the movement itself, as a local group in Selma called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced "snick"), disagreed with Dr. King's group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on how to go about advancing their mutual goal of stopping the illegal prevention of black people from registering to vote.
Dr. King occasionally meets with President Johnson, whom he tries to convince to pass legislation that would, I guess, ensure blacks would actually be allowed to do what the law already was supposed to let them do. But Johnson had lots of other things going on (such as the Vietnam War), and while he wanted to help, he insisted on waiting to deal with the voting issue later. King, however, was unwilling to wait, because people were not only being blocked from voting, but they were being murdered... and the murderers got away with it, both because of racist politicians and police, and because not being registered to vote meant black people couldn't serve on juries. So, in 1965, Dr. King and his allies organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, and Governor Wallace sent police to stop the marchers. After a news broadcast of the police brutality against peaceful protesters, Dr. King called on people of all races- particularly clergy- from all around the country to come to Selma and join them in another march. Meanwhile, the SLCL wants a federal judge to overturn Wallace's orders, which the judge won't do without first hearing the case in court. So the President wants Dr. King to postpone the march until after that. Which, again, King isn't willing to do unless Johnson writes the law he'd asked for earlier. Anyway, we see two attempted marches before the third march (after the judge granted the right to do so without obstruction) finally goes all the way to Montgomery, and King gives another of his famous speeches on the steps of the Capitol. And President Johnson finally does work on passing the bill King had requested. And as usual with historical films, we see some text about what happened to several of the people involved, in the years to come.
And... I'm leaving out (and already forgetting) lots of stuff, but that's the main thrust of the story. It really is an inspiring movie, well-acted and well-directed. For whatever license may have been taken, I still feel I have a slightly better understanding of Dr. King, and the Civil Rights movement (though still just a small part of it). But "inspiring" isn't all that the movie is. Yes, it has a happy ending, except that it's not the end. The movie, which came out in 2014, really resonates with recent events, so we know that as much progress as has been made over the years, there's still a long way to go. So it can be deeply frustrating... but at the same time, I've always felt it's necessary to never forget that things can and do change, however slowly. And this movie is a great reminder of that. And it doesn't shy away from showing that anyone, even King himself, could feel demoralized at times, and want to give up. But, it also reminds us that we can't give up.