The Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s film is a preacher of vision, but he’s also a tactician willing to let blood be shed in order to advance the cause.
SelmaDirector: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tessa Thompson, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Keith Stanfield, Niecy Nash, Alessandro Nivola, Dylan Baker
Studio: Paramount Pictures
UK Release Date: 2015-02-06 (General release)
US Release Date: 2014-12-25 (Limited release)
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is at once powerful and thoughtful. In presenting Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), it focuses on the difference between his private and public faces, as well as his efforts to keep them separate. These efforts were never more difficult than during the weeks leading up to March 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Rather than try to paint a definitive portrait of the man or the Civil Rights movement, the film instead makes the case that this march was one of many battles in a long struggle, and moreover, that King was all too aware of that long view.
King first appears in mid-speech, Oyelowo’s cadences impeccably mastered to evoke our own memories. DuVernay manages a neat trick here by pulling her camera back to show that he’s speaking into a mirror, rehearsing with the help of his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). It’s a down-to-earth scene played by Oyelowo and Ejogo with a warm ease that is all the more impressive given what comes next: King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. It’s a critical moment, one that might be the culmination of another person’s life, after all the hard work was done. But King received the Nobel just before the build-up to the Selma march, and still, the international honor provided no protection in the Old South. While trying to check in to a white hotel in Selma, King is punched by a random white man enraged by the mere appearance of an outside agitator.
Selma celebrates King and other leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who were agitators, including their role in the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in schools and employment. Afterwards, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) meets with King repeatedly, trying to slow the building energy of the movement. "This voting rights thing," he says, "is just going to have to wait.” The movie showcases the problem that waiting presents, in a scene where Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), trying to register, is humiliated by a sneering white county clerk in Selma.
Johnson, like many white leaders at the time, sees King as a nuisance but, because of his dedication to nonviolence, a useful ally to have for tamping down expectations of rapid civil rights progress and warding off “these militant Malcolm X types.” But even when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) makes a brief appearance, assuring a King confederate that while they disagree on methods, he’s willing to play the radical alternative that could help push white opinion toward King, the SCLC decides that a highly publicized clash is needed to force the issue. “Selma it is,” announces Dr. King.
Throughout the film, King makes no apologies for inciting trouble. His detractors in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including a young John Lewis (Stephan James), initially resent the SCLC showing up in Selma where they’ve been working on voter issues for years. When they suggest that King is a publicity hound, he doesn’t disagree. To him, the motivating principle of nonviolent protest is not only its moral imperative, but also its demonstration to white Americans the persistent costs of racism and segregation. To do this, he and his colleagues seek news coverage, to reveal stories of violent repression in their morning newspaper headlines and evening TV broadcasts.
For King, the march from Selma is tactical, particularly after Cooper becomes a movement hero when she slugs the brutally racist sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). King knows that blood will be shed, and, we see in several debates as well as in intimate scenes at home, that this tears him up. But he also knows that a smarter and less overtly racist sheriff couldn’t be counted on to overreact in a way that would make dramatic news. The film doesn’t dodge the violence but places it in contexts. The violence here isn’t just personal and immediate, demanding revenge or justice. It’s systemic, in need of long-term changes.
That said, the film presents the “Bloody Sunday” assault in a series of urgent, visceral images, as the police take after protestors at night, with the lights suddenly turned off and officers charging as though they are taking on enemy combatants, shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) dead in front of horrified witnesses. Later, when marchers in Selma first approach the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they’re greeted by ranks of masked troopers brandishing clubs. Showing both instances of such oppressive tactics is crucial to the film’s approach. It doesn’t care so much about individual racism as it does about an entire population being terrorized by official representatives. King lays out the scope of this system when he tells Johnson that he's seeking support for “citizens under attack”.
Both contemplative and combative, Selma presents a number of historical turning points in a style that might be called impressionistic. It skips from one moment to the next with no interstitial webbing, trusting in viewers' ability to follow along without extraneous exposition. This depiction of different critical moments with important people can lead to some Lee Daniels-style stunt casting, particularly featuring white performers. Tim Roth’s campy George Wallace impression seems to come from a different film, while lesser known black leaders gathering in Selma have more time on screen to develop. Scenes where DuVernay tracks King and his team, including James Bevel (Common) and Andrew Young (André Holland), as they strategize or goof off, are some of the finest in the film. Even more potent are those between Martin and Coretta, particularly one where she confronts him with FBI-supplied evidence of his infidelities.
Selma’s showcasing of individual moments over the educational arc helps to make this saga feel immediate, not preordained but unfolding as a series of actions, planned and unplanned. While the dramatic final Selma to Montgomery march is only shown via news footage, the focus on events leading up to the march is in tune with how history might be experienced by those in the thick of it. In this way, the movie illustrates what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said when he was asked to describe the most difficult part of his job: “Events, dear boy, events”.