Ava DuVernay’s Selma goes the sensible route and uses a single event from Martin Luther King’s life to lay out the impact he had on the trajectory of race relations in America. The Selma story is new to me but DuVernay serves us much more than an education but navigates through this film with the sorrow, pain, passion and verve only, I dare say, an African-American could have provided. I had never heard of her before this film but after watching her harrowing no holds barred execution of the Alabama church bombing that saw 4 young girls lose their life, she had my full attention and was not going to allow her audiences to mistake her or her film.
Selma narrows in on Martin Luther King and his civil rights march in 1965 from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital Montgomery. Racism is rife as ever and the southern states in the 60s are deliberately frustrating black citizens who try to register to vote. King feels this is ripe ground for protest and they look to make a spectacle of their protests which eventually culminates in the march. Their efforts are marred by tons of violence visited on them by the police and state troopers as the politicians watch in the shadows in silent approval. I wouldn’t call a lot of the oppression gratuitous but it did feel a tad mundane but alas stark truth of the abuse under the jackboots of oppression is not lost. The ante, however, is upped with the scenes on the Edmund Pettus Bridge which just send out sorrowing chills. It is a truly harrowing confrontation as we witness a military style engagement between the troopers and the protesters in what someone described as “the last battle of the American” civil war only that it was no battle, it was just a massacre as the troopers plough their way through the unarmed protesters with their clubs and shields. The film peaks on a technical level here as the DP, Bradford Young, shoots the scenes amidst the slow covering of white tear gas with such poetic grace that really sear into ones sensibilities.
The film has truly inspired moments but there are times it did feel like it was just shuffling through historical flashcards despite the narrowed take on King’s exploits. The film is given significant elevation not only by some painfully awe inducing moments by DuVernay but also by British actor David Oyelowo *cough snub cough* who plays Martin Luther King. Oyelowo here understands what made King a compelling oratory presence and nails it. He doesn’t really look like King and they are shades apart complexion-wise but he has the mannerisms, like the arm and head movements behind the podium, in check and more importantly he also nails the quite meticulous speech patterns and the delivery of King’s rhetoric. The MLK we see here is not just the now timeless embodiment of justice and hope but also the man who joked around and enjoyed tasty southern cooked grits with friends and the man who was plagued with strains and insecurities that followed his calling. This is essential as it serves to separate the man from the ideology of what he stood for by simply humanizing him, giving us something to connect to. The script doesn’t shy away from the controversies addressing King’s infidelities in a subtle and dignified way during a much understated scene with Carmen Ejogo who plays his wife, Coretta Scott King.
As far as the supporting cast goes, they do their bit when called upon. Tom Wilkinson leads the line as Lyndon B Johnson who is pretty much played as the politician who would rather defer the civil rights agenda for more politically expedient avenues which I felt was a fair and nuanced assessment of his character. Johnson is already proud of having ended civil rights on paper but is reluctant to take the extra step King wants him to. On the ground in Alabama, Tim Roth chews into the weasely stalwart character of Governor George Wallace who stands behind his racist agenda even in the face of presidential coercion. Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfery, Wendel Pierce do their bit and then we have another J Edgar Hoover Portrayal by Dylan Baker. I am always intrigued by the varying onscreen depictions of Hoover from Bob Hoskins to Leonardo Dicaprio but this time we don’t see any homosexual innuendos, just a repulsive serpentine figure even to President Johnson who is visibly unnerved when Hoover dangles a proposed solution to the Martin Luther King problem.
As I sit here, the one bit of the film that lingers on is the sequence that plays out during the second march. The first one ended in violence and bedlam but this time the protesters, led by Dr.King, are unexpectedly met with no action from the state troopers. The stage is set for the triumphant march to the capital but King dumbfounds us and his fellow protesters by turning back. Was it a divine decision? Was there some reason to the logic in King’s later explanation? Was it the presence of white folk? Was it just pure fear and a lack of faith? Was there a parallel to Moses and the Red sea in there? I wasn’t sure and I feel like King wasn’t either but it did speak to the man who was weary of the violence and a man who would sacrifice triumph for peace and the safety of his people after all the prior mayhem. Selma shows us of the best and the worst humanity has to offer and also reminds us of how far we have come yet how far we have to go. It is undoubtedly an important and enlightening story in itself and a compelling and well executed piece of cinema.