Covering just three months in the summer of 1965, Selma takes place in the eponymous Alabama city that organizers declare the “next great battle.” It’s here that Dr. King and his lieutenants will bring national attention (and hopefully sympathy) to the systematic oppression of the black vote and the violence faced by those trying to change the status quo.
This is a large movement, and there is conflict from the start. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members John Lewis (Stephan James) and James Forman (Trai Byers) nurse bruised egos when the older men of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) come into a community they’ve been working in months. Within the SCLC, there are disagreements about which legislative problems need to take the front seat. All over, there are questions about King’s motives. In a tense moment after marcher’s first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there’s an angry challenge to the ideal of nonviolence itself.
Selma succeeds in the fairly enormous task of humanizing a man who’s the closest thing America has to a saint. Due to copyright issues, King’s famous speeches are not recast with David Oyelowo here. Director Ava DuVernay, who also made significant contributions to Paul Webb’s script, instead invents a few new sermons, and hearing Oyelowo blast them out from the pulpit feels fresher than a performance of King’s iconic words might have. While King the orator is on display, we are mostly treated to a more personal portrait of the man, as he builds a strategy in backrooms. Duvernay also refuses to shy away from King’s personal flaws: his infamous affairs are not ignored, nor is his ego. He’s not a god here, he’s a man struggling with his ability to lead a massive, nationwide movement.
Selma complicates typical portrayals of the civil rights movement as well, specifically in its representation of nonviolence. Dr. King and his tactics are often defanged in classrooms and onscreen, but Selma shows just how radical nonviolence can be: it is a choice to put your body on the line. These men and women chose to walk towards officers mounted on horses, towards officers armed with barbed wire-wrapped bats, straight into tear gas and rubber bullets. These people willingly endured abuse in an effort to prove their humanity to a public content with ignoring them. The choice to place the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham near the top of the film makes the possible consequences of these choices explicit: black lives are always in danger, at a protest or a worship service.
There have been complaints made about the film’s historical accuracy, complaints which are at best uninteresting and at worst an attempt to detract from Selma’s important work. Historical dramas are not documentaries, and placing the burden of accuracy on this particular film and not, say, The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything is a move as transparent as it is absurd. Selma’s portrayal President Lyndon B Johnson, a white politician from Texas, as a man whose racial views were evolving in office is hardly unfair or villainizing. And frankly, DuVernay owes nothing to LBJ: her movie might not be entirely accurate, but it is honest.
That said, it would be a disservice to Selma to only talk about it as a cultural artifact when it’s also a damn fine piece of filmmaking. DuVernay, a notable snub from the Academy Awards and Directors Guild, is a confident director, and her skill is on full display during the three marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Also deserving of a mention is Bradford Young (who also shot A Most Violent Year and Pariah), who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best cinematographers working today. DuVernay’s direction coupled with Young’s use of color inject a much needed energy into a period that could have felt more stale than vital.
The film is filled with strong performances (James’ work as Lewis and Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King are highlights), but Oyelowo’s work as King is the beating heart of the story. He has turned in solid performances in a string of “civil rights” movies (The Butler, Lincoln, Red Tails, The Help), but this is a master work: he captures the cadences of King in the pulpit and maintains that confidence and bombast even in private conversations.
Selma does not explicitly confront the modern civil rights struggle, but it’s nearly impossible to separate it from Ferguson. It’s not just the scenes of a well-armed police cracking down on peaceful protesters, or a particularly upsetting sequence that shows the end of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s life. It’s the fact that black bodies and black lives are at the center of this film, marching forward. Call it inspiring or frustrating, but it’s 2015, and the march continues.
Featured image courtesy of EW.