Review: Selma (2014)

I wish every historical biopic gunning for Oscar were as vital and focused as Selma. Detailing a short period in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Ava DuVernay’s film follows his civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, which forced the hand of President Lyndon B. Johnson to introduce the Voters Rights Act into Congress. That bill finally guaranteed African Americans their right to vote unencumbered by racist Southern policy. We see nothing of King’s childhood, and his death is only mentioned in a title card before the final credits. The film is only about King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, but by being about so little, it’s about so much.

Selma’s tight focus doesn’t diminish the grand view of its central figure. Instead it humanizes King, showing his strengths and flaws in this particular context, as well as allowing us to experience the fight alongside him. Selma doesn’t just canonize a historical figure and period: it emotionalizes and politicizes it, showing how King’s fight for equality plays into the present and how his speeches are as relevant to the audience watching the film as they were to the people of the 1960s. As well, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln before it, Selma shows how historical change happens in concrete, procedural terms. Great historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t change history with a speech, no matter how powerful, but with day to day maneuvering and politicking that enacted real historic reform.

David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s a star-making showcase for the little known British actor (Jack Reacher, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Red Tails). Putting on some pounds and adopting King’s Georgian lilt, Oyelowo is doing more than an imitation of King, although he does look and sound the part to an impressive degree. He nails the inspirational speeches, but it’s in the quieter moments, whether arguing with his wife, Coretta (a quietly powerful Carmen Ejogo), or airing his doubts in a prison cell, that Oyelowo really shines.

One particularly moving scene midway through the film finds King talking to the grandfather of a slain protester outside a coroner’s office. King tries to find the right words to express his condolences, but they fail him. He finally speaks of God’s tears over the man’s grandson and lays a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder, as the man struggles to suppress his sadness. This is a devastating moment. It reminds us that behind all these great movements for human justice and dignity, behind the headlines and the history textbook narratives, people were unjustly murdered and the eventual political success did little to allay their overwhelming grief.

Much of Selma is full of this emotional power. It’s not just the sweeping score from Jason Moran or the quality of King’s speeches that are touching. It’s the moment to moment immediacy of what we’re witnessing. DuVernay along with cinematographer Bradford Young utilizes a frequently roaming camera that adds a sense of energy to every scene. Not that the camera is always shaking (it’s more Scorsese steadicam than the shaky handheld of the American independent movement), but it’s constantly inching closer to character’s faces, or following behind them as they march onward. It’s as if the camera is ushering the audience forward in history, creating a momentum that approximates the momentum of the civil rights movement in America.

DuVernay understands the power of images to sway the human heart. Selma is full of stirring imagery, from King and hundreds of others kneeling down in prayer on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to state troopers raining down tear gas and nightsticks on activists, to the simple shot of an elderly black woman hitting an abusive sheriff upside the head. But she also understands that such images can be manufactured and used for political ends. She even explores this concept directly in the film.

In one scene King tells some disapproving young activists that he is counting on the sheriff of Selma making a mistake that he can capitalize on. He explains that if the sheriff acts up and the news agencies capture a photo of him hurting someone, that photo will end up on the front page of every national newspaper the following day, which would draw more supporters out of the woodwork and force LBJ’s hand. King was no naive activist without an understanding of how political process and maneuvering works. He knew how to stir emotions to change the priorities of politicians. DuVernay’s film does him the justice of showing how his remarkable mind worked. It’s a great film and I would’ve placed it high up on my Top 10 Films of 2014 had I seen it before publication.

As the recent events in Ferguson and New York have shown, racial inequity is still alive in the United States. King’s dream has not been fulfilled even 47 years after his death. Selma showcases the importance of King’s work, but it also connects his movement to the present generation of civil rights activists, fighting a whole different battle on a whole different battleground. It’s powerful historical filmmaking, and shows us how America got to where it is, and perhaps how it can move forward in the future.

9 out of 10

Selma (2014, USA)

Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by Paul Webb; starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lorraine Toussaint, Niecy Nash, Colman Domingo, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Tessa Thompson, Andre Holland, Wendell Pierce, Keith Stanfield, Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey.