The Utter Brilliance of “Selma”

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

Rarely on film does one searing, early moment so completely define everything else that follows. To understand Selma is to face that moment, just as to be a part of that time was to endure it. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when it happens. It is jaw-dropping, it is crucial, and it obtains its power because it really occurred.

Selma follows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader and pastor who led the 1965 march of African-Americans and allies from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The march, a demonstration intended to realize for African-Americans the right to vote, faced violence that captured the nation.

But didn’t African-Americans already have the right to vote? Technically, yes, but not effectively. Impossible tasks were placed before them. Pay poll taxes for every year they were unregistered, require registered voters to vouch for you, recite the names of 60 specific elected officials at the drop of a hat, each of these obstacles more unconstitutional than the last.

Selma doesn’t feel like a biographical movie as much as it feels like a war film. This isn’t because it’s filled with violence. There are moments of brutality, but it’s of the sort that’s tempered by history, that feels important to witness but isn’t overstated because no filmmaker can equal the true violence captured on archive footage.

Selma feels like a war film because it follows the strategies each side employs to achieve their goals. Dr. King makes one move, Alabama governor George Wallace makes another, President Lyndon B. Johnson makes yet another. It realizes the architecture and strategy behind protest better than any film I can remember. In helping audiences to better understand the language of protest, director Ava DuVernay connects the film to the very fractured United States we live in today.

Selma Tessa Thompson Lorraine Toussaint

It also finds the humanity struggling inside these characters, the strengths and weaknesses they couldn’t help but bring with them to a violent time. Selma is a poetic film, a film that speaks the language of faith to invoke the spirit of it, that imbues the entire experience of witnessing what happened with that faith. It helps you understand what guided men and women through a time when fear could have easily turned them back. It is not just a film about civil rights, it is a film about what moves people toward their purpose.

Yet it is all framed by one early, searing moment that clearly defines what that purpose must be.

I can’t imagine a more important film this year. Selma will be considered and should earn a bevy of awards, including a strong showing at the Oscars.

Many biographical movies seek to style reality, to give it a sleeker look and make everything happen in a removed cinematic universe where everyone mutters in shadows. Instead, Selma is visually smart without being visually dense. It is accessible and says what it has to say with a minimum of extra complication.

David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King isn’t remarkable in its drama, but rather for its restraint. He feels like a real person I could picture walking into a room, sitting down with, learning something from. The rest of the ensemble is remarkable. Even the smallest roles are filled with conviction and feeling.

Selma march to courthouse

There’s been some criticism over Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of President Johnson, particular in regard to his use of the FBI to spy on Dr. King. I’ll address this for my Texas audience: LBJ did those things. That’s a matter of historical record. I still view LBJ as a great leader, but even legends make mistakes and sometimes trust the wrong people. Selma itself discusses the mistakes that Dr. King made as well, both in his personal life and in his early civil rights leadership. To say that one great man is allowed to be examined, flaws and all, without allowing the other to be examined through the same lens is hypocritical. I won’t say Wilkinson gets the accent down, but he does get the personality, and watching him chew out Wallace is one of the true joys in this film.

It’s not a movie about President Johnson, though, and that’s important to remember. It’s a movie about the leaders, the people, and the spirit of a place that became a battleground for one of the most important moments of the 20th century.

Selma isn’t interested in the celebrity or idolization of any of its figures. It’s interested in what they did, why they chose to do it, and the fears, joys, and faith they felt in lifting that burden.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Selma have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King is played by Carmen Ejogo. She captures some of the film’s most powerful moments and messages.

Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper. Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, an incredibly important yet often forgotten leader in the civil rights movement. Lorraine Toussaint plays civil rights figure Amelia Boynton, Charity Jordan plays Viola Lee Jackson, and Tara Ochs plays Viola Liuzzo, a role with few lines but that you won’t be forgetting any time soon. The film is filled out with several other female characters.

One cannot look at this moment in history and pretend women were not as big a part of it as men.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Women speak about voting rights, plan the march, and discuss African-American history in the film’s most overwhelmingly poetic and culturally communicative moment.

You know what? There’s not really much for me to say here. Selma gets it pretty right. It’s a film that can’t help but focus on male leaders – Dr. King, President Johnson, and Governor Wallace – but remembers that women were just as central to this movement.

Personally, I’d love to have seen more of Diane Nash. She had co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and in may ways created the blueprint of modern nonviolent protest. While the film does treat her as part of Dr. King’s inner circle, it doesn’t exactly make clear just how important and experienced a leader she was. It does this to certain male figures as well, so it doesn’t feel biased.

It’s a minor quibble – Selma already strikes a fine balance of invoking a moving experience and teaching the historical context in which it happened to both men and women – but if you’d like to learn more about a woman who doesn’t get the due she deserves this and this are good places to start.

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