There’s a major pitfall when it comes to crafting movies based around larger than life politicians and social activists. There’s a tendency to punctuate every sequence with a grandstanding speech meant to underline the best known words and deeds of someone who changed the world. It’s not that such moments are inaccurate or that they can’t be lavishly staged or deftly handled. It’s that such moments are easy bits of filmmaking. You can read a book, scan an old newspaper, or watch archival footage and those moments are there for the taking. They’re documented, concrete, and verifiable. It takes a lot more courage and talent to make something like Ava DuVernay’s Selma. It’s a look at civil rights leader Martin Luther King at a specific moment in his life that goes beyond the schematic and dares to get personal without diminishing or skewing the man’s contributions. It’s a vital work in terms of its timeliness, but it’s also fresher than most historical dramas genuinely feel. It’s a film that’s unafraid of letting its legendary subject be utterly and sometimes tragically human.
It’s 1965 and great leaps and bounds have been made to give equal rights to black people, but despite desegregation in most of the country, there was still the matter of voter rights. Still seen as less than the equal of one white human being, black people were often repressed at the polls, particularly in the state of Alabama where notoriously racist governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) has remained in power for years. In support of getting a Voting Rights Act passed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his supporters begin mounting a non-violent march from Selma, Alabama to the capital, Montgomery, in protest. It would become one of King’s most dangerous endeavours, a three month period of violence, imprisonment, personal strife, and ultimately great success and support from brave people of all races willing to stand side by side for human rights.
Opening very simply where a nervous King good naturedly bickers with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) about having to wear an ascot to an event, it’s apparent immediately that DuVernay isn’t interested in only hitting the high points of her chose topic. But there’s also a remarkable amount of focus being displayed. Nothing that happens before or after the events surrounding the Selma march are rehashed unless they have to be, and they aren’t needed. Within moments its clear what the significance of the events at hand are, and DuVernay does so without resorting to ponderous, repetitive exposition or hagiography.
There’s a clear structure when it comes to the chronicling of events, but DuVernay and her cast never presuppose what was said in those moments. It’s a respectful look at a group of people fighting for equality, but she never portrays them as equal people in the room. Some are more pushy, some are more passive. Some are hesitant, and some have huge egos. Some think that King’s approach is novel and relevant, others think he’s power hungry and not going far enough. Much like any great film where the outcome of a well known historical event is apparent to the audience before they even go into the film, Selma mines considerable tension, drama, and sometimes even good humour strictly by focusing on the personalities involved and an overarching look at the enormity of their task.
Much in the same way that Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi solidifies its core thesis around a politically motivated massacre, DuVernay applies the same visual and emotional cues to the depiction of the Bloody Sunday march, an aborted attempt to conduct the march with King held back for safety reasons. It’s a moment of unconscionable brutality and one of the most depressing moments of injustice to ever occur on North American soil. It’s the point in the film where the main protagonist realizes that they have come so far in their quest for equality that the final hurdles will be the hardest and most difficult of all to overcome.
It’s at this point that the wonders of Oyelowo’s performance become apparent. It’s a decidedly egoless performance of a man with a large ego. King will readily put the cause over his own well being, but he still seems to relish being the face of an entire movement. There’s not just an emotional intelligence to his humanist portrayal of King, but also a real sense of history. It feels lived in, never falling back on established history. He pays respect to King by never aping his words outright. He allows for moments of reflection and self-doubt. He’s a firebrand under fire. Oyelowo defers to DuVernay’s stacked supporting cast (including Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Wendell Pierce, Common, and Oprah Winfrey as fellow conspirators, and half a dozen other recognizable faces throughout the picture), but it’s his movie; a story anchored by someone equally humble and magnetic.
There could be (and almost inexplicably has been) some finger wagging about not following things exactly to the letter and some might decry the lack of speechifying (often without realizing that all of King’s speeches are actually copyrighted), but Selma perfectly nails home a sense of what fighting for freedom and equality actually means to those involved. It’s a precise and nuanced look at a microcosm that’s about to have an effect on a world stage. And yes, it’s impossible to not think of Ferguson while watching the film. They sadly seem to go hand in hand, but DuVernay’s work offers a great wealth of hope precisely when we need it most.