Selma is a shining example of how to create an informative biographical drama that still packs an emotional wallop. Rather than trying to portray the entire life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay captures the essence of King by wisely focusing on three tumultuous months in his life. David Oyelowo delivers a mesmerizing performance as the civil rights icon, showing us a man whose passion is rivaled only by his intellect and political cunning. Selma takes an unflinching snapshot of American history that, sadly, feels more relevant today than ever before.
Nestled between the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a perilous 13 month period that would forever define America’s cultural identity. Racial segregation was legally dead, but Jim Crow was still alive and well in the American South. For black Americans, registering to vote was akin to taking a randomly-generated citizenship test. One heartbreaking scene from Selma finds a motivated and obviously prepared Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) succumbing to a litany of civics questions that would baffle a government scholar. For real change to occur, black Americans needed representative government, and that would never happen as long as the white establishment was blocking voting booths.
With the fuse of revolution already lit, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (Oyelowo) came to Selma, Alabama in January of 1965 to fan the flames. Three months later, flanked by thousands of supporters, black and white alike, he marched to the Capital steps in Birmingham and claimed an enormous victory for the Civil Rights Movement. He did this not through violence or political acquiescence, but by showing the world that his fight was just and then challenging them to take up the cause. The only significant part of the journey we see is the lead-up; the tortured moments of dread, followed by the inevitable explosion of violence; the now infamous Bloody Sunday where a nation witnessed the true dehumanization occurring in the South. There is every reason to turn back, but Dr. King and his followers persist. Sometimes, all that can sustain hope is the knowledge that history will illuminate who is right and who is wrong.
A proponent of passive resistance and peaceful demonstration, Dr. King is a thoughtful man whose fire is fueled by friends and faith. In the darkest moments, he reaches out to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in order to, “hear the Lord’s voice.” As she sings sweetly but powerfully into the telephone, Dr. King remembers what he’s fight for; the spirit of a proud people who are long overdue the human dignity they deserve. It’s in these quiet moments of reflection, when the soundtrack fades out and Dr. King is alone with his doubts and fears, that Oyelowo perfectly embodies the spirit of a leader who never asked for his authority; his flock came to him.
Everything wonderful about Selma emanates from Ava DuVernay’s flawless direction. She understands the heart and soul of her film. More specifically, she knows this is not an MLK autobiography; he is merely the central figure in a much larger struggle. DuVernay distills decades of oppression into one fateful march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The resulting clash between peaceful demonstrators and the bigoted police force blocking their egress is symbolic, metaphorical, and stained with the blood of those who endured it. It’s a swirling mess of good versus evil, with Dr. King acting as both orchestrator and peacemaker. DuVernay reaches deep into this apparent contradiction and finds a man capable of juggling those opposing desires. His doubt is his strength. To have absolute certainty is to court disaster, and DuVernay never shies away from Dr. King’s fear of physical reprisals and death.
Paul Webb’s script, exhaustively re-written from page one by DuVernay (absurdly denied a writing credit), is very similar in structure to Spielberg’s Lincoln. We are treated to the fascinating political wrangling between MLK and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Yet, unlike Lincoln, these political machinations never bog down the story. Instead, the script stays focused on the true temptation facing Dr. King; compromising his long term objectives in order to secure a short term “victory.” Selma is a film about moral progress, not political process.
In addition to Oyelowo’s Oscar-worthy performance, we are treated to a multitude of terrific supporting work. Dr. King’s inner circle, including James Bevel (Common), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), each get a chance to prove their quality. These performances need to be deeply nuanced, for it is their belief in Dr. King that sustains his strength. Marshaling the forces of evil against them are Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). Yes, these men are transparent caricatures of bigotry, but that is exactly the point; they represent a faceless, intolerant system that will resist change until the greater society forces its compliance.
Despite its sometimes morose mood, Selma never looks anything less than striking. Costume and set design, as well as the muted cinematography, all evoke a sense of time and place that lends extra tension to the story. You never know when an idyllic setting will be suddenly shattered by ugliness, just as you’re inspired to find compassion amidst such hatred and turmoil. Normal people under extraordinary circumstances are capable of anything, and Selma uses everything at its disposal to perfectly convey that message.
This isn’t to say Selma is a perfect film. There are some questionable casting choices. Wilkinson, for instance, isn’t quite comfortable in his turn as LBJ, and Winfrey’s cameo feels very much like a producer’s perk (like Brad Pitt’s jarring appearance in last year’s 12 Years a Slave). The dialogue, too, sometimes lacks the naturalism required for proper character development. Instead, we get miniature speeches delivered at strategic moments when the script requires an emotional boost. Some of the historical facts, particularly the acrimonious relationship between MLK and LBJ, have been embellished for dramatic effect. Not only is this to be expected, it is perfectly acceptable. Selma, after all, is a cinematic experience; designed to infuriate and inspire. There are plenty of books and documentaries to glean for the facts. Selma wants to capture a moment in time, and it does so with remarkable dexterity.
Yet, Selma captures much more than a moment, it captures an indomitable spirit. Kicked and beaten and bloodied, it picks itself up to face the next challenge. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King embodied this spirit, and so the people united behind him. Watching the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, one is reminded of the importance of history… the importance of films like 12 Years a Slave and Selma. We are not so far removed from our shameful past of bigotry that we have the luxury of forgetting. Justice and social equality is a work in progress. Passionate, smart films like Selma serve as an urgent reminder of where we came from and, if we aren’t vigilant, where we might easily return.