Saturday, January 10, 2015
Here, at last, is Selma. Ava DuVernay’s film about the planning and execution of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama arrived at the end of a year when Americans found themselves shaking their heads over seeming systemic indifference to black deaths at the hands of white police officers. Selma opens around the country at the start of 2015, and this bracing film is a much-needed reminder that the Civil Rights Movement was more than just integration, sit-ins, and the changing of laws. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo in a superb performance) and his associates were putting forth a moral imperative about the meaning of America, and the energy and bravado of DuVernay’s film keeps King’s message alive like no dramatic work I have ever seen.
Selma opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) remark on how pleasant it is to briefly “be away” from the struggle back home, and the honesty of that assessment is a sign of things to come. Ava DuVernay (working from a script credited to Paul Webb) is interested in Martin Luther King, Jr. the man, and Selma gives us a King who is by turns scared, calculating, angry, funny, and magnetic. DuVernay has found an ideal creative partner in David Oyelowo, the two first worked together on DuVernay’s film Middle of Nowhere. Oyelowo doesn’t put a foot wrong here, and he is equally as good at playing King joking with Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and others in a Selma kitchen as he is at delivering a eulogy at the funeral of a murdered protestor (Keith Stanfield). Some of the best moments in Selma show King as politician, smoothing over the angrier SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) as he explains the strategy behind non-violence. The film is very detailed about why King does what he does, including a moment where he declines to press an opening that Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) appears to have provided. When King is called out by a SNCC member (Trai Byers) for not starting the march when given a chance it is the only time in the film that he doesn’t have an answer and the scene points up just how moment-to-moment the Movement must have felt despite King’s strength.
The initial attempt to stage a Selma-to-Montgomery march resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” of March 1965, when Alabama state troopers blocked the bridge to Montgomery and then assaulted the marchers. This scene is DuVernay’s strongest set piece, with the fleeing marchers filmed against the nightmarish white smoke of the troopers’ tear gas. When we see marchers like John Lewis (Stephan James) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) being beaten it brings home the point that the Movement had a real human cost, one that King (in the film’s conception) was keenly aware of. If only Selma had been as strong in its treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Much conversation about Selma has centered around whether the film is “fair” to Johnson, but while the assertion that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea seems obviously false almost all scenes involving Johnson are played as broadly as a TV movie. Johnson is portrayed as having no grasp of the moral dimension of the Movement, and indeed as being behind the surveillance that J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) has the FBI perform on King. Selma is broken up by titles that suggest FBI tracking of King, and I wonder if the focus on the government’s reaction to King isn’t misplaced. Surely the fact that elements in the U.S. government considered King dangerous is the least interesting thing about him now? I don’t know if there’s a historical basis for the scene where King and Coretta hear a surveillance tape of King with another woman, but Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo both underplay marvelously in what could have been a maudlin moment. I wanted more time with King, Abernathy, and the others. (including characters played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Wendell Pierce) , as I was fascinated by the way these leaders of the Movement behaved when there were no cameras around. Selma is at its best when it depicts the work of organizing the Movement, and the joys, anxieties, and fatigue that its leaders experienced. Ava DuVernay and her collaborators have made a vital, important work of American history, a film that holds lessons that we need to keep learning.