Few historical dramas, no matter their aim, actually make you look at a public figure in a whole new light, change the way you view someone, or alter your perspective, but that’s precisely what Ava DuVernay’s Selma accomplishes. Martin Luther King Jr. is an icon, there’s no other way to put it. He’s this image you see on murals and in text books, whose speeches you study, but especially this far removed from his life, he hardly seems real, more myth than man. What DuVernay, working from a script by Paul Webb, and lead actor David Oyelowo achieve is to paint him as a man, a human, with all the flaws and failings inherent in all of us, and he becomes that much more powerful and moving because of this.
This isn’t a biopic. Selma doesn’t try to tell the story of an entire life, but one story, one piece. The plot revolves around King’s famous march from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery, and the push for equal voting rights, and while that’s the surface action, there’s so, so much more going on and at stake. There are the larger political and moral ramifications that are obvious, and just as important in the current climate of America as they were in the time the film is set. As the government wages war halfway across the globe but can’t, or won’t, protect its own citizens, the film draws parallels through time.
Selma also explores the conflicts between different groups within the civil rights movements that are indicative in protest movements today. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference clashes with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee over tactics, despite sharing the same ultimate goal. And on the surface, voting rights seems like a simple issue, but this is such a deeply imbedded problem that even within the leadership of the SCLC there was contention about how to approach changing the very system. For instance, you couldn’t register to vote without a registered voter vouching for you, which wasn’t going to happen in a county with no non-white registered voters. Clear that hurdle, you had to pay a poll tax for every year you weren’t previously registered to vote, another huge issue as poverty was widespread. Beyond that, say you’re able to jump through all the hoops and finally register, your name and home address is then published in the paper so anyone who wants to find you knows exactly where you’ll be. When the problem is so imbedded, so intrinsic in the system that you can scarcely see where it begins, how can you even begin to attack and dismantle it? Again, another problem that persists today.
For all of the larger ramifications, this is a very personal story. King goes up against a disinterested administration, faces ever escalating threats against himself and his family, and the FBI’s counterintelligence program was in full swing, sewing strife in the movement and even in his own marriage. This is all information that you know, or at least should, but what makes Selma so remarkable, is that it takes this individual who has a near mythic standing and makes him human and relatable. As driven as he is, he’s also tired, frustrated, and disillusioned; he doubts himself and his decisions, stumbling under immense pressure and making mistakes in both his personal and public life. Showing that he’s far from perfect, that he’s just like everyone else, leads to a level of connection with him, his message, and his sacrifice, that most people have never experienced.
Led by Oyelowo, the cast is, across the board, incredible. There have been complaints that, even in quieter scenes, King comes across as if he’s orating, as if he’s always giving a speech. From most accounts, this is largely just how he spoke in real life, but there’s a gravity to his countenance that lends and air of importance and weight to every moment, no matter how small. Carmen Ejogo’s role as Coretta Scott King is small, but adds a thread that grounds things. Tim Roth’s George Wallace, the Alabama governor, is so hate-filled and spiteful that he makes your skin crawl. As President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Tom Wilkinson has his own struggles. At a crossroads, a pivotal moment in history, he’s planted in an unjust past but on the cusp of something more, trying to avoid falling on the wrong side of history while keeping a grip on the political reality.
You know the story, and you’ve seen footage of the violence, but DuVernay makes it so present, so personal, so brutal, that it leaves you stunned. Early in the film, she stages a recreation of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that claimed the life of four young African American girls and became a focal point of the movement. It’s an event we all studied in school, but the way she stages the action is so jarring that it simply sucks the air out of you in way you forgot a movie could. It’s filmed in a gorgeous, almost dream-like way, and the bottom drops out, your breath runs short, and your heart beats in your throat. This is, without a doubt, one of the most affecting, impactful scenes in any movie this year. Saying a moment feels like getting punched is an overused comparison, but in this case it is the most apt. You feel the physical influence as your body has a visceral reaction to the images on screen.
Powerful and stirring, often grim and infuriating, but also incredibly hopeful and engaging, Selma is a movie you need to see. It didn’t screen in most cities until just now, and as a result, it doesn’t show up on many of the ubiquitous end-of-year lists that are everywhere right now, though it should. But it’s so much more than simple awards bait. Strip away all the Oscar chatter, and DuVernay and company strive for, and achieve, something much deeper more powerful. This is a film that not only points out problems and issues that still persist to this day, it offers a glimpse of something better, something optimistic. It leaves you moved and shaken, and no matter what awards it walks away with, Selma is a movie that will be remembered and resonate for a very, very long time. [Grade: A]