“No lie can live forever.”
When filmmaking is truly at its best, it holds a mirror up to the present and shows us that we’ve been down this path before, and that there is a way out of our present circumstances. The makers of the powerful new film Selma could never have known just how prescient their film would end up being in early 2015, but the same problems that plagued its characters fifty years ago have only softened slightly in the interim. As a matter of fact, one could walk out of this film thinking that nothing much has changed in America since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — brilliantly brought to life by David Oyelowo — led scores of protestors fifty miles from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama in 1965.
What sets Selma apart from the more heavy handed films of this ilk, however, is its ability to shirk biopic conventions at nearly every turn. Wisely focusing on the period of months between Dr. King’s receipt of the Noble Peace Prize in October, 1964 and his speech on the capitol steps in Birmingham the following March, Selma gives us a look at Dr. King’s entire purpose without having to foolishly drag us through every major event in his life. The film is not too far removed from the intent behind Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with all of its backdoor political dealings and major strife faced by a man on a mission, but it succeeds where that film faltered by narrowing its focus even further and trimming virtually every ounce of fat, thereby making it a more powerful film overall.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. of Selma is a man driven by a purpose, but also hampered by the very things that make us human, self doubt being chiefest among them. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Martin and Loretta Scott King, played with elegant grace by Carmen Ejogo, listen to a tape intended to blackmail him into stopping his protest march in Selma. Rather than skirt the issues that made Dr. King a flawed human being, it brings them to the forefront of an issue where they don’t seem to belong, and drive home the message that even the best among us has flaws enough to sink their message, no matter how noble it may be. A lesser film would have either skipped this scene altogether or focused on it too heavily, and the way this scene is handled demonstrates just how incredibly well crafted the entire film is.
There is a temptation by many in this day and age to praise this film blindly and celebrate its many virtues for fear of being branded culturally insensitive, but the simple fact of the matter is that Selma is a film that earns every bit of praise and respect it is due. Far too many “important” films focus too much on the great things about a person or an event and gloss over the more sordid aspects of things, or do exactly the opposite — see 12 Years a Slave for an example of the latter. Selma doesn’t keep Dr. King at arm’s length from the audience, but rather takes the time for one-on-one interactions that show he wasn’t some beatific figure who popped out of the womb fully formed. He seeks to understand those who would follow him, illustrated by an incredibly moving scene where he meets with the grandfather of a slain protestor, and thereby becomes someone tangible and real.
The film has come under fire in certain circles for its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson, but the film is perhaps too kind to the lumbering Texan. Yes, he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and yes he fought for equality in his own way, but Johnson is rightly portrayed as the politician he was, constantly seeking to figure out his angle toward doing the right thing, rather than just standing up and doing it. That’s the kind of hard truth the film doesn’t shy away from in any of its characters, and anyone seeking to sanctify President Johnson should do just the tiniest bit of research into his presidency before defending him. I certainly don’t think he comes off badly in this film, but he comes across honestly, which is likely more than some audience members can handle.
Director Ava DuVernay does a masterful job with pace and tone, keeping the film appropriately somber when it needs to be and absolutely electrifying when the circumstances demand it. It’s a rare treat to see a female director so assured and emboldened behind the camera, and it’s something Hollywood could truly use a whole lot more of. Her eye for composition, coupled with the brilliant work of cinematographer Bradford Young makes the film gorgeous and haunting. It’s history that doesn’t have that textbook sheen to it, but rather the look and feel of something straight out of real life. Pair this with a knockout script by first time screenwriter Paul Webb, and this film has far too much going for it to be ignored.
The performances are all sensational as well, anchored by a career making performance by the amazingly underrated David Oyelowo. He presents us with all the sides of Dr. King, from the compassionate friend to the brilliant orator, and he does it all with such ease and assurance, it’s terrifying. He’s always been on the edges of greatness, but here he leaps into it wholly and never looks back. This is a performance that demands your attention and then rewards it fully. Carmen Ejogo is also excellent, as are the men who make up King’s inner circle from Wendell Pierce and Common to Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Colman Domingo. All of the distinguished character actors who turn up in minor roles are good as well, like Tim Roth as the vicious governor of Alabama, George Wallace to Dylan Baker in a scene-stealing turn as J. Edgar Hoover. Thankfully, DuVernay decided not to bury these men under garish makeup the way Lee Daniels did in The Butler, and the film is just that much better as a result.
Selma is a transformative motion picture, one which will stand the test of time not simply because it is an incredibly well made movie, but because its immediacy cannot be ignored. Until we truly decide as a species that we are going to live in harmony with one another and finally overlook the things that make us different by embracing all of the things we have in common, it’s going to continue to assert its relevance on modern society. By placing Dr. King at the film’s center but not making the film explicitly about him or his life, it gives the audience a beacon of hope in the center of a maelstrom of depressing and senseless acts of violence. This is a resonant and incredibly powerful piece of filmmaking, one which will hopefully demonstrate to future generations just how narrow minded we can be as human beings. The film’s true power, much like the true power of Dr. King’s message, however, is that when we come together and unite under a single purpose, we can truly accomplish great things.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
Photos via Box Office Mojo