I can’t begin to know the struggle of a filmmaker. I’m only attempting to be a screenwriter and thus far have found the process very challenging. It must be difficult to craft a film from start to finish, finding a way to hold the viewer’s attention while delivering a compelling a story. Now imagine how much more demanding your task would be if your film centered on a heroic, legendary fixture in American and global history. Such was the task before director Ava DuVernay in her depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Selma isn’t the first film about Martin Luther King, but it does offer a unique perspective behind the man and the movement. Rather than craft a comprehensive biopic spanning his lifetime, DuVernay focused on an all-important slice of his life, the pivotal time in which he spearheaded passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By narrowing the scope, DuVernay provided a fresh insight that hadn’t been previously offered. Moreover, she captured a more personal, intimate side of a larger than life public figure. Given the recent spate of incidents of police brutality against young Black men, the timeliness of the film cannot be overstated, and one couldn’t help notice the parallel between the scenes of civil unrest and protest in the movie and recent images in the news. Moreover, with more and more states enacting local laws restricting the right to vote, Selma rings true today.
The film begins powerfully, first highlighting the absurdly unjust hurdles Black Americans were forced to overcome in order to vote. DuVernay then left the viewer with no doubt about the racial climate by depicting the infamous bombing of four little girls in a Birmingham church. For younger viewers these images may have been jarring, as I can’t assume what people do and don’t know about their history. And when I say “their” history, I mean all young people, regardless of race – because Selma is a portrayal of events in American history, not just Black history.
DuVernay juxtaposed the historical accuracies with a uniquely intimate dramatization of King’s personal life. We’re introduced to him not at the pulpit delivering a fiery speech, but rather in a warm, private moment with his wife Coretta. As he prepares to accept the Nobel Prize for peace, he complains to Coretta about his ostentatious attire. She soothingly reassures him, as only a wife can. Small touches like this may go unnoticed amidst the more powerful, violent images that punctuate the film – but I was struck by the manner in which DuVernay made the legend more accessible.
The film operates within the strategic confines of King’s calculated plan for Selma. His aim was to focus on Selma and protests there so that he could bring national attention to the violent and unconstitutional manner in which Blacks were being denied their right to vote. Then-President Johnson was politically reticent about sweeping change, so King had to apply pressure by keeping the violent images plastered on the front page of the newspapers that littered America’s collective doorstep. His plan was effective, and ultimately Johnson enacted the single most significant piece of legislation of the Civil Rights Movement.
Selma humanized King in a way that brought him down one step from his pedestal without besmirching his legacy. We see that he was a man, with fears and flaws. He and Coretta had problems like any married couple. He had moments of doubt and insecurity, yet he was brilliant in his strategy to the point of shrewdness. I didn’t feel like the movie deified him, though the glorious nature of his character was undeniable. That is due in large part to the gravitas David Oyelowo (Interstellar) brought to the role, though the Academy has overlooked his contribution this year. Both he and Carmen Ejogo (The Purge: Anarchy) were mesmerizing on screen, coloring their scenes with restrained chemistry.
The subject matter alone would make this film a must-see, but it’s technically sound as well. The cinematography and storytelling were nearly perfect, and performances from the likes of Tom Wilkinson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Tim Roth (Arbitrage) and Oprah Winfrey (The Butler) in a brief but powerful cameo only strengthened the final product. If you weren’t well versed on the history of the Voting Rights Act or Civil Rights Movement then obviously this movie is one you should see. If you were, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, although we still have some work ahead of us. Grade: A