Arriving only fifty years after the watershed Civil Rights Act of 1964, at a time when social, racial, and economic issues are again dominating our nation's attention, Selma is a sobering, inspiring portrait of courage under fire and the power of nonviolent protest. It is a landmark achievement in the history of cinematic depictions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a seminal work by a director, Ava DuVernay, whose star is about to become a supernova. (Her indie darling Middle of Nowhere wowed the festival circuit in 2012, inexplicably vanished, and will finally be released on DVD and VOD next week.)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Producers: Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey
Writer: Paul Webb
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Editor: Spencer Averick
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Jim France, Oprah Winfrey, Clay Chappell, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Common
Premiere: November 11, 2014 – AFI Fest
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Among the many reasons Selma succeeds is the decision by DuVernay and unheralded screenwriter Paul Webb to root the story in a distinct place and time. A conventional MLK biopic would have suffered under the weight of flashbacks, obligatory scenes to mark time, too many characters, and no identifiable soul. On the contrary, Selma draws you in from its earliest scenes, immersing you in the action and intimately revealing King’s personality and character by examining one of his crowning achievements.
Covering the period from roughly October 1964 to March 1965, from when King spoke from the Nobel Peace Prize podium in Oslo to when he spoke from the Capitol steps in Montgomery, Selma is a riveting lesson in rhetoric. For a man whose legacy has been defined by his brilliant oratory as much as anything else, the two speeches serve as fitting bookends to this chapter in his life. As the story settles in Selma we also bear witness to King's effectiveness in communicating during smaller, quieter moments: persuading members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to let him direct the local voting rights movement, or prodding President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office. Selma also underscores the brilliance of King’s strategy: building coalitions, leading by example, and most importantly, using the power of traditional media at a time when it was much more centralized and influential than it is today.
DuVernay patiently allows the events in Selma to breathe, which both informs viewers unfamiliar with the movement’s history and also builds emotional momentum to a soaring climax. Like Paul Greengrass’ grittier Bloody Sunday, Selma’s narrow focus ironically reveals a much bigger picture about the zeitgeist of societal change in the 1960s. Like Gus van Sant’s Milk, Selma humanizes a heroic figure by exposing his conflicted thoughts, fears, and self-doubts. DuVernay occasionally sentimentalizes King's nature (and an overwrought musical score is a bit too present), but deliberately does not canonize him as a flawless man.
When I wrote a piece in 2008 spitballing potential casting choices for a MLK biopic, I never could have anticipated the revelation that is the British actor David Oyelowo. He not only meets all the criteria I described (an unknown or underexposed actor who looks convincingly like King and has the necessary acting range), but he makes many of the other suggestions laughable in comparison. Oyelowo bears a striking resemblance to King and his performance in Selma comes at the perfect time in his burgeoning career. His ability to balance King’s gentleness with his fiery passion and provocative wit is a sight to behold.
Also tenderly portrayed are many of the key figures in the Selma story, including civil rights martyr Jimmie Lee Jackson, activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also one of the film's producers), and remarkable student leader—and future 14-term U.S. Representative—John Lewis. Most of the white characters, meanwhile, are painted in rather broad strokes, including Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and, quite controversially, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. Aside from these characterizations, the speeches King delivers in Selma are actually compositions written by Duvernay because the King estate did not grant permission for the verbatim records. And of course there are issues related to the timeline of events—Jimmie Lee Jackson actually died more than a week after being shot, the Birmingham church bombing took place more than a year before King received the Peace Prize, and so on.
These artistic decisions have led to questions about Selma’s historical accuracy, which DuVernay has vehemently and persuasively defended. As disappointing as the accusations are considering the countless terrible historical dramas that have been offered by much more high-profile directors (not coincidentally all white men), it’s perhaps expected considering the politicization of pretty much everything in 2015, fueled in large part by a polarized national and social media. Either way, the specific charges miss the bigger picture: Selma isn’t a documentary, and DuVernay deserves as much artistic license as a director of any other historical drama, including the other Best Picture nominees that it may find itself in the company of next week, such as The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, and American Sniper. Should Selma be held to a different standard?
In any case, the film’s strongest scenes are those around which there is no controversy, such as the “Bloody Sunday” first bridge crossing attempt. While similarly depicted in the Disney film Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), DuVernay’s take on the incident is one of the most arresting scenes in any film this year. Dashed with unnerving sounds and images that evoke the black experience in America from slavery to Ferguson, and held in rhythm by a pounding gospel hymn, it is a stunning composition. In this scene, and in almost every frame of Selma, the gorgeous cinematography of Bradford Young also adds a crackling vibrancy (as Young did to even greater effect in 2013's Mother of George).
DuVernay’s sublime artistry is no less impressive in Selma’s more introspective scenes, again aided by Webb's thoughtful screenplay and an extraordinarily talented cast (several of whom are also British): Mahalia Jackson singing to King over the phone when he can find no peace at home or in his mind; King comforting Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather, Cager Lee, in a moment of transgenerational wisdom and encouragement; and Annie Lee Cooper experiencing the wickedness and humiliation of discrimination as she earnestly attempts to register to vote. These moments are critical to establishing character and emotional resonance, and in the hands of another director they may have been left on the cutting room floor.
Wherever Selma ends up years from now, whether dulled by historical controversy or polished by Oscar gold, a future MLK biopic may never again feel this immediate, nor this graceful (a Spielberg-produced biopic is currently in limbo after ham-handed Oliver Stone backed out as director). Barely two generations removed from the film’s events, DuVernay has revived the spirit of a national hero whose message and methods still deeply resonate on issues as diverse as same-sex marriage, police-community relations, minimum wage, and even, still, basic voting rights. In thrilling artistic fashion, and with thoughtful regard for its place in history, Selma reminds us that the philosophy of King’s movement is timeless, even if the man himself is not here to carry it out.