When I attended my screening for Selma earlier this month, it was on the same day as the Millions March in New York City. Along the way to the theater, I passed thousands (perhaps more) still invoking the horrors that descended on Staten Island this previous summer—and the Grand Jury that turned a blind eye to it in December.
It might be too easy to draw parallels between the far more incredulous and nightmarish times of 1960s Alabama with what is occurring in the U.S. today. However, the coincidental intersection of history—both what we’re living and what we’re remembering—has an undeniable brush of providence. It’s inescapable for once it does come time for the crimson to flow on Bloody Sunday, or for when Alabama State Troopers execute Jimmie Lee Jackson after simply exercising his right to organize in Selma, the blood will also be flowing, and boiling, and stirring to action in every audience member in every theater throughout the country.
During its best, Selma is a clarion call for justice, and when it’s not quite there, it is still one of the best films of the year.
As the first Hollywood filmmakers to seriously deal with the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb have the unenviable task of bringing sunlight to statue carved so deeply into the annals of history that his experiences have been truncated down to four simple words: I have a dream. He is not just the historic face of the Civil Rights movement; he’s a pop culture icon, broken down for bite-sized digestion.
The solution undertaken by filmmakers is two-fold. First, they have cast British actor David Oyelowo in the role of Dr. King, who inhabits the statue by breaking through the marble and quickening the film with lightning every time he is asked to speak or monologue in the film from Selma to Montgomery. The other was the savvy choice to zero in on that life story to just the travails between those two Alabama destinations. He may travel to Washington D.C. in the film, as well as speak of Albany, and smile to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo. But like its title, Selma lives and breathes in the heart of Dixie during the ugliest days preceding the Voting Rights Act’s invention and passage. And it is there that his struggles 50 years on still find a new crucial immediacy.
It is 1965 when Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Selma. Less than two years before their arrival, four young girls were murdered by a bomb planted in their church one Sunday morning in the nearby Birmingham. And one year prior to King arriving to Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson (using John F. Kennedy’s assassination to galvanize Congress) passed the Civil Rights Act. Yet, when Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) goes to register to vote at the local post office, she is turned away with hostility and derision.
Not much has changed since in Dixie, and Oyelowo’s King could not be more receptive to the situation. The perfect hotbed of injustice and racial inequality, it is the spot where the SCLC can draw a line in the sand, and make President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) realize, whether he wants to or not, that the Civil Rights movement is not over. Not when they can’t even vote. But while Johnson may be indifferent on pressing ahead, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) is more than happy to intervene on the status quo’s behalf with some damning phone calls to King’s ever patient wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). And then there’s George Wallace (Tim Roth)…
As previously mentioned, it is in these scenes of political gamesmanship, and personable horror, that Selma sears its strongest images. Admittedly, I have not seen DuVernay’s previous films, but the relatively unknown director showcases a visceral eye for well-placed emotional sucker punches. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death during a night walk has the foreboding air of doom usually reserved for genre nihilism before Wallace’s State Trooper goons. And while Wallace’s appearances are fleeting and broadly drawn, any passing study of archival footage on the governor suggests that Roth and DuVernay’s choices may have still been understated.
But it is on Bloody Sunday where her approach and epileptic editing (provided by Bradford Young) take on a heartbreaking blunt force trauma. The crescendo of tension culminating in peaceful protestors being assaulted on a bridge is meticulously set up as the centerpiece of the film. That and Oyelowo.
A consummate character actor who has already appeared in memorable supporting work in recent years, including Lincoln, The Butler, and A Most Violent Year, he enjoys here the kind of star-making performance that accolades are made of. Oyelowo puts on the necessary weight gain for a role like Martin Luther King Jr. and has obviously studied his speech patterns, but the real measure of his success is in capturing the benevolence, with all its flaws, underneath the transcendent oratory. Oyelowo takes one segment of King’s life and projects a complete portrait, including his greatest public triumphs such as the march on Washington, and his likewise greatest failings as a husband. The grandness of King’s ambition, which is unapologetically willing to seize on any opportunity to advance the cause (such as picking a town with the most dimwitted, racist sheriff imaginable), walks hand-in-hand with less admirable traits—such as his repeated philandering.
It is thus almost a shame that the narrowed focus on Alabama is also used as a shortcut to speed past these personal failings. There is fire burning between Oyelowo and Ejogo, and Martin and Coretta’s scenes course with the fumes. However, the film is hesitant to delve too deeply into this turmoil, leaving their relationship roughly sketched at best.
Similarly, the film’s version of King and Johnson is a dubious (if entertaining) one that could have easily warranted more screentime. I doubt that the Civil Rights leader ever got in multiple shouting matches with the United States president, as presented in the film with a wide two-shot of the men standing mano a mano like bruisers ready to go at it in the bar, but it raises some still-controversial historical questions about their relationship before 1965, and how Johnson really viewed King and African-Americans. But just as their scenes explode with melodramatic fireworks, they also consistently fade to the back, and thereby ultimately border on caricature.
But again, these standard challenges that come with biopic hagiography are mostly circumvented thanks to Selma’s thin but infinitely potent subject matter. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the man’s life is surmised not by a three-hour formula, but by an intense study of a specific moment. And it is in that moment that Selma will confront, shake, and ultimately alleviate the audience’s senses. We see the depths of human sorrow in the face of every marcher who is beaten back by systematic injustice, yet like the real-life King, Oyelowo’s presence offers a compelling counterpoint—a rebuke of the horrors of the now with a persuasive promise of a better future.
In these moments, Selma convinces that this is a tale of transcendence instead of hardship; triumph rather than defeat. And it’s a story whose resonance is ever so desperately needed in the pervasive now.
***This review was first published on December 22, 2014.