With the overabundance of fervent platitudes of love for director Ava DuVernay’s Selma, anything I say will reek of copycatting and rehashing what my betters have penned. But, I must make the attempt regardless….
From the deaths of four little girls to the rampant debate regarding Ferguson, we aren’t any closer to being a “post-racial” society, if we ever were to begin with. With all the issues regarding race relations in our country today, it’s hard not to watch Selma as a time machine, tossing us back fifty years to 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery. And, in a way, that’s DuVernay’s attempt, to remind us that we’re doomed to repeat the past if we don’t push forward to change the future. Separating DuVernay’s film from its statement (some might say “agenda”) is impossible, and only propels DuVernay as a face to watch in the coming years, alongside a stellar performance from David Oyelowo.
By 1965 segregation was abolished, yet the residents of various Southern states struggled to keep it alive and well, particularly in denying African-Americans the right to vote. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) and his group of followers decide to enact a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the hopes of bringing the issue to the forefront.
Again, it’s hard dissociating Selma from current events and audiences will be divided by the experience based on how they feel about things currently. Even if you disagree with today’s calls about racial inequality, Selma acts as a testament to American resilience, and the determination any minority group has to be heard. The opening moments depicting the Birmingham church bombing – that Spike Lee tenderly and tragically recounted in his documentary Four Little Girls – disorients the audience, taking them away from a place of safety and dropping them into a world where chaos and discrimination are inherent everywhere, even in going to one’s country registrar to vote. (The first scene involving Oprah Winfrey being humiliated by being quizzed turns a gimmicky cameo into a sobering moment.)
The chaos and discomfort never let up. This is nowhere near as unrepentant in its desire to discomfort the audience like 12 Years a Slave was, but DuVernay and crew do want the audience to be uncomfortable by the atrocities they’re witnessing and ask how we could allow these things to happen…and whether they still do today. I doubt it’ll be recognized, but the sound mix is remarkably effective, aiding in preventing the audience from forgetting the images depicted. Everything sounds crisp from the cries of people in the street to the crack of billy clubs. The first march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge – which is returned to three separate times, with the group moving out of the sidewalks and into the streets – is a masterly juxtaposition of sound and visual effects, and cinematography as the audience gets just as lost as the people fleeing from the police on horseback.
That’s not to say the movie revels in frenzy. At its core, DuVernay seeks to educate and enlighten with characters who aren’t holier than thou, although time has turned them into modern-day gods. After smaller roles in several films (and a fine turn in A Most Violent Year), David Oyelowo dominates as Martin Luther King, Jr. King is no demagogue or saint here. He’s a man filled with doubt for what he’s doing, and the movie takes the time to criticize and question his choices, particularly after the second march when he turns back. Oyelowo has the difficult take of taking some indelible, iconic speeches, and acting with them. You could say the words are powerful, so really anyone could make them work. Not so. Several of the speeches reverberate thrugh Oyelowo’s untested nature and charisma. Oyelowo isn’t doing an impression of King, but taking the man and injecting pathos and humility into a man whose personality are etched into our collective consciousness like marble.
Too often people today question the “infallibility” of King in light of some of his personal indiscretions. DuVernay touches on them in an attempt at cutting naysayers off at the pass, but fears of offending King’s legacy dampen the effects of bringing said indiscretions to light. Carmen Ejogo, luminous as Coretta Scott King, has a few tense moments opposite her on-screen husband, particularly when his indiscretions are alluded to. However, possibly for fear of offending the King estate, DuVernay never develops their marital woes further, casting an ellipsis on them; their problems are referred back to throughout the movie, but there’s no true context that’s stepped into, more danced around. However, the few moments where Ejogo has the agency to act are fantastic, especially a moment where she organizes a speech by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), another character who, unfortunately for fear of opening that can of worms, only comes through in one scene.
The sheer abundance of the cast and Oyelowo’s indomitable performance do leave a few actors out of the lurch. I was sad to see Tessa Thompson and Common stick to the sides throughout the movie, while Stephan James steals a few scenes as SNCC leader John Lewis. Tim Roth as George Wallace and Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson are good, but they’re the typical flies in the ointment. Wilkinson is given a rather well-rounded storyline discussing the political motivations within the Movement.
Speaking of SNCC, screenwriter Paul Webb did his homework before making this. At 128 minutes the movie packs many elements of the Civil Rights Movement outside of the core elements you may already know. The rivalry between King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) vs. SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) is fascinating, especially since most people don’t know of the two groups’ dynamics within the movement. I also loved the inclusion of Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), a white woman murdered by KKK members after giving a black man a ride home. Having just finished a book about women during the Civil Rights Movement, I was astonished to see her name mentioned, let alone giving a face and voice within the movie’s narrative.
Selma is landmark film in our cinema today; one that needs to be experienced by the widest amount of audiences possible. Every award the movie gets is warranted. Ava DuVernay creates a heavy film that latches onto your soul.