Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo
Country: United States/United Kingdom
Taken together, Ava DuVernay's Selma and 13th act as a compelling thesis on the power of words and images. The one (13th) making the case for the power of words, specifically regarding how they can be used as a tool to safeguard power in the hands of those who have always had it, the other making the case for the power of images to do the work that words simply cannot, specifically to make real and urgent issues that feel intangible to those not personally suffering their effects. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great speaker, but it took the images of the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge being broadcast across the United States and to the rest of the world to finally galvanize the sympathetic but complacent into seeing that the voting rights movement was not a "black issue," but a human issue. The impact of images is at the heart of the story that the film is telling, but it's also a key to the film's success. Viewing the story of the Selma to Montgomery marches not from the lofty heights of power and the perspective of politicians, but from the ground and the perspective of those suffering the indignities and pain of racism, DuVernay creates powerful, bracing visuals that allow Selma to sidestep the trap that many historical/biographical films tend to fall into. This is not a reverent but dryly academic examination of "An Important Thing That Happened," but a work of passion and great impact.
Although it touches on the behind the scenes maneuverings of those in seats of political power, including President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), the bulk of the film follows King (David Oyelowo) and other civil rights activists, including Andrew Young (Andre Holland), James Orange (Omar Dorsey), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Reverend James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint), and John Lewis (Stephen James), as they organize and carry out the three Selma marches as part of the fight for voting rights. As the face of the movement, King must navigate division from within (the film’s focus on that division is primarily between King’s group and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is characterized as a generational dispute as much as anything; but the film also touches on the political differences between King and Malcolm X, played by Nigel Thatch), gather enough political leverage to push Johnson into taking firm, definite, and immediate action on the matter of voting rights, fend off attempts by the FBI to discredit and distract him by chipping away at his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), and find a way to reassure himself that the course he’s taking is the correct one when faced with the brutality that meets his attempts at peaceful protest.
Selma is a violent film. It has to be because the history is violent, but DuVernay does not fetishize that violence or allow it to be used as an instrument of catharsis. The violence is visceral without being gruesome, leaving no doubt about what has happened – peaceful marchers showered with tear gas and then run down by men on horseback wielding whips and clubs, police beating their way through a sit-in, a young man being shot and killed – but not lingering on or glorifying the gore. While there is some stylization to the way that some of the film’s acts of violence are depicted, it’s done for the purpose of bringing intensity and immediacy to the experience of the victim and startling the viewer. The effect is powerful and it lingers well after the fact. While the history of these events ensures that Selma has an advantage of some built-in poignancy, it's ultimately DuVernay's skill as a storyteller that brings this story down from the realm of mythology to make it a grounded, deeply human, and incredibly moving film.
As with any true story, Selma, which was written by Paul Webb, takes some liberties with the facts, streamlining events into a clean narrative. All historical/biographical films do this, but at the time of its release Selma came under particular scrutiny respecting its “accuracy,” with critics fixating on the film’s depiction of Johnson as a politician who accepts civil rights as an inevitability but would rather not deal with such a hot button issue until he feels the timing is better. In Selma Johnson is depicted as an obstacle to the Voting Rights Act, in that he would be content to just rest on the laurels of the Civil Rights Act for the time being and is frustrated by the fact that activists can’t simply be satisfied with the gains they’ve already made and instead keep demanding more. He’s further depicted as someone who is better at giving lip service to his sympathy for black people than he is at acting in a way that demonstrates empathy and understanding – for example, when a white pastor is murdered by segregationists after the second march, Johnson calls his widow to express his sympathy, but he does no such thing for the family of Jimmie Lee Jackson after he is shot and killed by a State Trooper. In the end, though, he comes through, and even if the film’s depiction of him isn’t “heroic” (which tends to be a necessity for films about people of color if they’re going to have cross-over appeal, the “heroic white person” being the preferred point of identification from a studio’s perspective – even 12 Years a Slave had the Brad Pitt character, after all), I wouldn’t characterize it as “negative” either. He’s depicted as a pragmatist who wants civil rights to be part of his legacy, but doesn't want to move to effect change until it's politically advantageous of him. That seems like a fairly even-handed portrayal to me.
But ultimately it doesn't really matter how Johnson is portrayed, because Selma isn't a film about Johnson and the burden of being the President negotiating the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Instead, it's about how people without institutional power effected change through their actions, their endurance, and their willingness to sacrifice, with King as the face of the movement. In telling the story from this perspective, DuVernay does not attempt to portray King as perfect and infallible. He was an extraordinary man, but he was just a human being and DuVernay aims to view him at that human level. As played by Oyelowo, King is a man with flaws who feels a calling and a clear sense of purpose (though at times he has doubts about how to achieve that purpose), both of which weigh heavily on him as his attempts to effect change yield violent reactions ranging from threats to his family to beatings and sometimes murder of his followers. He's not larger than life here (and in that respect the film owes something to the fact that the King estate would not grant permission to use his actual speeches), but pictured to scale with the other people around him, working with him towards a shared purpose. It's that sense of community, that this isn't just the story of one man but the story of many, that helps make Selma feel so enduring and so stirring. This is a dynamic film that cuts to the core.