Up until very recently it was not uncommon to hear the phrase “racism is dead in America.” It was never true – even with a black man in the Oval Office – but that fallacy is looking more and more ridiculous in light of the numerous murders of unarmed young black men across the country in the last several months. Segregation and lynchings may be relics of a tragic and infuriating part of our still-recent history, but racial tensions clearly remain an issue in the United States. Ava DuVernay’s Selma, about the 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery, could not be coming out at a more appropriate time. Perhaps a look into the past can yield a more considerate future.
The march depicted in the film revolved around voting rights (or the lack thereof) for black citizens in the south. Recognizing the importance of the issue, and lacking support from President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his fellows from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference travel to Selma, Alabama, where King believes he can exploit the particularly aggressive attitude towards blacks to raise awareness. His efforts culminate in the planned march, though Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) vows to do everything in his power to stop the march from taking place.
Over the last 50 years, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a mythical figure in U.S. history. To anyone born after a certain time period and without a vested interest in the civil rights movement, King is this larger than life legend – an integral player in the fight for equality who was tragically murdered for his efforts. His place in text books is almost god-like, to the point where any humanization might be considered blasphemous. DuVernay, Oyelowo, and screenwriter Paul Webb make the bold choice in depicting Martin as a normal man, warts and all. Their version of Martin makes jokes, manipulates others (toward noble ends), doubts himself, and treats his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and children less fairly than they deserve. While bringing the man down to earth, none of this undermines how powerful his voice was as a leader, and it in fact serves to deepen the film’s portrait. This is what every biopic ought to strive for, because that’s exactly what Selma is; despite its narrow focus on one event in the Civil Rights Movement, this is a movie about the man who was King.
The rest of the men and women depicted in the film do suffer somewhat because of this (apart from Stephan James’s John Lewis, who gets a good amount of attention). There are so many members of the SCLC floating around that it is hard to keep track of them all; the fact that about half of these men are named “James” or “John” doesn’t help matters. So when everyone stands around advising Martin or discussing a decision he has made, it is difficult to buy into all of the opinions being presented, merely because there is little grasp of who everyone is. Unless the viewer already has advanced knowledge of the key players involved, any investment in the characters comes from the prior work of the actors rather than their performances in Selma. It becomes more “there’s Bunk from The Wire (Wendell Pierce)” instead of “there’s Hosea Williams. Likewise for the men and women portrayed by The Knick‘s Andre Holland (as Andre Young), Dear White People‘s Tessa Thompson (as Diane Nash), The Closer‘s Corey Reynolds (as C.T. Vivian), and Common (as James Bevel). This issue is most evident in the presence of Oprah Winfrey (also a producer) onscreen. Winfrey appears prominently in the third or fourth scene as Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma resident whose attempt to register to vote is stymied. She appears periodically throughout the rest of the film, but never speaks again. But whereas the other actors engender sympathy through their previous work, Oprah is so famous that the lack of development for Annie causes the media mogul to be more of a distraction than anything else.
DuVernay overcomes these hurdles though, because the scenes where these somewhat anonymous people take action still manage to be powerful, even when neither Oyelowo’s King nor any of the recognizable actors are present. Cinematographer Bradford Young’s framing keeps all of the action clear, so when incidents devolve into violence the audience can only helplessly observe.
Some of the injustices that Martin Luther King, Jr. fought against are still prevalent in society. It’s sad but true. Selma won’t cure any of those ills, but it may raise awareness, something of which Dr. King was very much in favor. The film’s faults are more superficial than anything else; DuVernay’s confident direction (and uncredited writing – due to rights issues she had to compose original speeches for Oyelowo to deliver) produce one of the best biopics in years, and one of the best films of 2014.