Pay little mind to the historical accuracy police. For its unconventional approach to the biopic formula, for its unsentimental depiction of a man whose legacy practically demands sentimentality, for its powerful visualization of a protest in progress, Selma demands to be seen.
Directed by Ava DuVernay (a former publicist with just two prior film directing credits) from a script by Paul Webb, Selma zeroes in on a key week in the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of America’s best known activists. As played by David Oyelowo, an actor with charisma and dignity to spare, King comes across as a principled man with flaws and anxieties, not a lionized symbol of amorphous “progress.” King’s infidelity is a major plot point, and Oyelowo’s performance is smooth but penetrable, revealing the toll of this man’s largely self-imposed responsibilities. The look of relief and trepidation on King’s face when the Selma police step to the side of the road during one of the key marches is among the indelible cinematic moments of 2014.
But the true achievement of Selma is that it appears on the surface to be a traditional story of “one man who changed everything forever,” but its scope is far more inclusive. Webb’s script makes room for the college activists who balk at King swooping in to co-opt the work they’ve accomplished, the politicians who grapple with the balance of moral judgment and legacy consideration, and the ordinary Americans who felt compelled to join the march despite their privilege. (Tom Wilkinson’s turn as Lyndon Johnson is one of the movie’s less three-dimensional performances, but the character’s conflicted sense of right and wrong provides a relevant examination of the relationship between different types of politics.) DuVernay’s steady hand is equally sympathetic to the leaders and the laypeople. She wrings considerable power from images of protesters swarming the bridge in orderly but passionate fashion, and she handles the intimate moments of indecision between King and his colleagues deftly.
The film captures the singularity of King’s rhetoric with the added obstacle of inventing that rhetoric from whole cloth. During one memorable speech, DuVernay holds on a medium shot of King delivering his speech from dead center. No close-up necessary – Oyelowo’s delivery reaches out and grabs you like King’s did. The movie is filled with simple moments that might have been ham-handed with a lesser director at the helm. Oprah Winfrey makes a cameo appearance as an Alabama woman who’s denied the right to vote by a vindictive county clerk. Even America’s most powerful woman doesn’t distract from this movie’s consideration of particular people and their particular problems. There’s a healthy balance of dramatizing and mythologizing that keeps the movie far away from the swamps of the melodrama. And the struggles, while symbolic of tensions that continue today, remain grounded in carefully executed details and gestures, like King adjusting his tie in the opening sequence.
It’s impossible to watch the scenes of police officers brutalizing the protesters and not think of the recent events that started in Ferguson, Missouri and spread outward to the rest of the nation. It’s especially difficult to avoid the comparison when the rapper Common – who capably plays James Bevel in the film – utters the line, “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up,” in “Glory,” the song that plays over the movie’s closing credits. (Meanwhile, the periodic visual reminders of the lurking FBI plays like a 1960s version of the anxieties about the modern-day surveillance state.) Selma is a movie about nonviolent protest – not only its virtues, but the frustrations and tensions that arise in planning and executing it. Crucially, the movie ends on a series of spotlights on noteworthy figures who attend King’s speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol. Mixed in with the stories of triumph are people for whom the activism wasn’t enough – a black man who registered to vote at the age of 84, a white woman who was killed twelve days after the speech because she pledged allegiance to the black cause. In 2014 (now 2015), we’re seeing the realities of even the most effective activism’s limitations play out in horrifying ways. Selma offers a reminder, equally hopeful and bleak, that the struggles of yesterday are the struggles of today.