Dir: Ava DuVernay
Sometimes films capture the Zeitgeist by being prescient or forward-thinking, and sometimes they simply luck into the role. Last month The Interview became an unlikely lightning rod for freedom of expression when North Korea sought to stymie its release and the public pushed back (whether the end result was worth the battle is debatable), while 12 Years a Slave proved that in 2013 race was still very much an issue in Obama’s America (and elsewhere), and there are still important and untold stories from U.S.A.’s checkered past.
It’s no surprise then that Selma – which sheds light on the larger-than-life historical figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by telling one very specific story about him (à la Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) – would still hold great relevance. Even though the movie (like most) was in development for years (and narrowly avoided being directed by the heavy hand of Lee Butler), the shocking aspect is just how of-the-moment Selma feels after the tumultuous 2014 the U.S. has had. It’s unfortunate that a movie about the civil rights movement still has lessons to impart that seemingly haven’t been learned, but that’s the way it certainly seems. Yet beyond acting as a truncated history lesson and a powerful clarion call for equality, Selma succeeds mightily as a film as well, in ways that are deeply felt and clearly realized.
David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr., first seen fussing over his ascot while his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) reassures him it doesn’t look too formal. This quiet scene of domesticity seques into MLK’s acceptance speech for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in the American Civil Rights Movement. It’s here that we’re first treated to the oratory power of King as channelled through Oyelowo’s commanding but not overbearing performance. Far from a simple impression, the British Oyelowo creates a real character out of a historical figure that most have only seen and heard in black and white photos and film clips. It’s a remarkable feat and only grows in strength as the film goes on.
Director Ava DuVernay, working from a script by Paul Webb, wisely narrows the focus of the film to a three-month period in 1965 during which King worked towards organizing a march from Selma to Montgomery (in Alabama) in order to secure equal voting rights for black Americans under Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. This approach solves the basic conundrum of biopics (inherent in the likes of The Theory of Everything and even more so in The Imitation Game) by avoiding the need to compress an entire life (albeit here it’s one that was tragically cut short) into a two-hour movie. With that breathing room in place, Selma is free to act as a gripping real-life procedural that examines King’s legacy in a succinct yet probing manner.
Following a shocking act of violence perpetrated against a black Southern church, Selma finds a further polarized MLK urging President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation cementing equal voting rights for all Americans. Johnson, despite a landslide victory in the last election, opts to focus on other issues, forcing MLK to organize non-violent protests primarily in the town of Selma (which had a 52% black population, all of whom were effectively barred from voting). The protests take the form of organized marches that bring the many members of the movement, as led by MLK, into direct conflict with the local authorities (masterminded by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, played with slithery redneck menace by Tim Roth).
From there the timeline compresses and expands as needed, mostly staying with King but also sketching out his many followers and antagonists with admirable characterization. Wilkinson is commanding as Johnson and gets in a few good lines (complaining about loud protesters keeping his faithful hound Ladybird awake), while alternately helping and hindering MLK. The two have a stirring idealogical argument in the White House against the backdrop of a portrait of George Washington, as King argues the urgent need to make things better and Johnson claims “You’ve got one problem, I’ve got 101 problems!” It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted man, and that even-handedness extends to King as well. Carmen Ejogo brings a quiet strength to her role as King’s wife Coretta, and when she confronts him about his infidelities it’s another intensely powerful moment in a film chock full of them.
In fact, Selma builds tension and elicits empathy so effectively that by the time the final march occurs near the end of the film you can’t help but erupt into a torrent of emotion. Actual historical footage is cut together with narrative scenes to remind you that, yes, this was indeed a watershed moment in history. And instead of feeling crass or exploitative, Selma feels thoroughly alive and vital. This is an expertly modulated film that – despite the subject’s propensity for grand speeches – avoids histrionics and instead plays its moments mostly small for maximum effect. When a protester is killed and King meets with the boy’s father, it’s quietly devastating in a way that few movies ever approach.
It must have been clear that the source material was great, as numerous other notable actors show up in small roles (like Common, producer Oprah Winfrey, and Giovanni Ribisi) or sometimes for one scene only (like Dylan Baker, Martin Sheen, and Cuba Gooding Jr.). Credit then to DuVernay for wrangling such a cast and sticking the landing in a film that would’ve been noteworthy for its subject matter alone but earns its place in the Zeitgeist by merit of being an astounding film. Setting aside claims of inaccuracy (which are generally
inevitable in stories of this nature), I can see this film being shown and taught and discussed for years to come. See it because it’s powerful, see it because it’s important, but do so secure in the knowledge that Selma is transcendent and inspiring, the type of film that stirs deep emotions by way of a seemingly simple act – telling a great story.