Many of us are talking about the timeliness of Selma in light of the tragic events in Ferguson, New York, and Ohio. The gripping message it has for all of us is to effectively garner our anger and fight injustice. Yet, director Ava DuVernay also has a passion for telling women’s stories. And, of course, at the heart of Selma is Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). Her story reverberates in a powerful subtext. What does it take to be a woman married to a powerful and charismatic man on a mission?
Some feel Coretta Scott King’s strengths are not emphasized accurately or enough in Selma (see Barbara Reynolds 1/19/15 in The Washington Post). I felt them come through. If we look closely, Selma offers examples of some essential qualities required of women who must, to a certain degree, put themselves aside and stand behind their men. Strong love and trust in her husband’s love – those go without question. What else does she have to be?
A woman like Coretta Scott King thinks for herself. She doesn’t stand behind her husband because she has nothing else in her life. This kind of woman believes in what he’s fighting for. It’s her fight too. We see this very clearly in the scene with Malcolm X when MLK, Jr. is in jail. Coretta steps in for her husband and stands up to Malcolm X, against his belief in violence. She is a woman with convictions, her own person before anything else.
Speaking out is the only option. We see this with Malcolm X. And, we see it in the marches. With her husband, too, Coretta speaks her mind. She bears the threats against her family. But, she doesn’t want him to laugh off the dangers in Selma. Coretta is honest about her fears: “What I haven’t gotten used to is the death. With the fog of death hanging over I can’t see life sometimes – how they’ll kill my children and you.” Knowing and expressing her feelings is another strength.
Her sense of reality, of her marriage, of her husband, cannot be shaken. She’s not plagued by doubt. In one disturbing scene with LBJ, we witness J. Edgar Hoover trying to undermine King’s determination in Selma by dismantling the family. Weakening the dynamic. Going after the wife.
A wife like Coretta Scott King won’t be taken down any more than her husband will. She knows what’s real and she stands strongly by that truth. There’s a line of certainty and dignity in her that can’t be crossed. Yes, she has to put aside her needs sometimes, and the needs of her family, for the larger cause. But nothing and no one will undo her.
Since she lives in reality – sometimes-brutal reality, sometimes-lonely reality, she’s able to accept imperfection in her marriage, and in her husband. He’s not always there, of course. Not as much as she personally needs, as she says in one powerful scene: “This house has no foundation. We’re without things the children should have. I’ve gotten used to it, for better or for worse.”
She endures his failings. As Andrew Young (Quoted in Deadline 1/17/14) puts it, “It’s not wrong if the warts are there … the inference Coretta might have been upset about Martin being gone so much or them having marital troubles, it’s just not true.” She knows he’s human like everyone else.
A Marriage That Works In Selma
What makes this kind of marriage work for some when it doesn’t for others? Coretta Scott King’s husband had a calling to fight for the civil rights of an entire race. Taya Kyle (American Sniper), another example, had a husband who fought against terrorism. Both wives understood. In the last analysis, they must have decided their marriages gave them enough.