Martin Luther King on the screen: 1999's SELMA, LORD, SELMA

One of the most disappointing aspects of modern cinema and television is that we really haven't seen that many representations, in movies or television, of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite the fact that King led a movement that definitively made the world a better place, entered the pantheon of American heroes, and has a national holiday in his honor, from a cinematic standpoint, until the recent (and incredible) SELMA, he's been less of a recurring character in American cinema than Howard the Duck. Hell, even Steve Prefontaine got two movies, and most people only know him as that one guy who was a character in two different movies at the same time. But King hasn't been completely absent from our screens. He appeared in a dream sequence in the 1967 Swedish arthouse film I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW), and he was almost in a scene in FORREST GUMP. He's also been featured in a few made-for-television films.

We don't yet have the SELMA script in our library - we're working on it, and if you follow us on Twitter or Facebook you'll be the first to know when we get it - but we do have SELMA, LORD, SELMA, a made-for-TV movie that ran on ABC in 1999. It tells the same story we see in SELMA - the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's attempts to eliminate roadblocks to Black voting rights through nonviolent resistance - through the eyes of a young girl. The teleplay was written by Cynthia Whitcomb and based on the book by Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson, as told to Frank Sikora. The movie is Webb's story; she's the main character. King appears at intervals throughout.

The draft on our shelves, dated April 6, 1998, is a little strange, since it actually starts over from the beginning on page 94, and pages 96 through 114 appear to be the opening scenes to a different draft. Where the "real" draft begins with Sheyann and her friend Rachel jumping rope on a sidewalk in Selma. Later, the two meet King as he arrives at their church. King gives a brief monologue on nonviolent resistance and then disappears until midway through the first act.

In the unfinished draft appended at the end, King's gift oratory is on greater display as he invokes the names of Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, as well as JFK. It's a lovely moment; I've only seen SELMA once, and while it briefly mentions Evers and Kennedy, I don't recall Parks or Till coming up. Check out the speech in Whitcomb's draft:


I can't get my hands on a copy of the film, so I can't be sure which version of the first act was used, but I hope it was this one.

Later (in the "main" draft), Act Four begins with the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson, chronicled in SELMA as well. Like SELMA's writer Paul Webb, Whitcomb drew upon King's real-life eulogy of Jackson for this scene, particularly the bit about passively accepting the evils of segregation:

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Click here to read a copy of King's actual eulogy of Jackson, provided by The King Center. Take care to note the edits that he made in pen on the typed page; the document began life as a memorial to the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (portrayed with gut-wrenching portent in SELMA). Recorded history and cinema share at least one thing in common: They come to pass in a series of drafts.

Also like SELMA, Whitcomb's script depicts Bloody Sunday, the horrific scene on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Note Whitcomb's description of the deputies as wearing gas masks that make them appear "not quite human," capturing the inhumanity of the assaults. Note, too, the man falling from the bridge, made all the more dreadful as we see it through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl.


We've got plenty of movies about the Greatest Generation and the fight against the global domination of a racist megalomaniac. We've got great flicks like BRAVEHEART and 300 about warriors who resist tyranny against impossible odds, bolstered by the belief that no human should live restrained by empire. Those are great movies, but our great cultural data cloud could use more films in it about guys like King and the people who stood with him. Whether or not SELMA wins any Oscars, here's hoping its success spawns more movies like it. In the meantime, let's remember that there are also small films like SELMA, LORD, SELMA, that chronicled the 20th Century American fight against injustice.