- Selma (2014) movie review: Martin Luther King Jr.-centered historical drama is a reminder that the Voting Rights protests of the mid-1960s – like the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, march – remain disturbingly relevant in the United States of the early 21st century.
- Selma won the Best Original Song Academy Award (“Glory,” by John Legend and Common). It was also nominated for Best Picture.
Selma movie review: Set in 1965 Alabama, Ava DuVernay’s real-life-based sociopolitical drama will bring to mind early 21st-century events
The title of director Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma tells us what the film is about, while implying what it isn’t about. In other words, Selma is not about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – wonderfully played by British actor David Oyelowo – even though the reverend is the film’s gravitational center.
For although Oyelowo’s presence is as transfixing as that of the young Ben Kingsley in his transformative interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 classic about one of Dr. King’s inspirational figures, Selma – unlike Gandhi – is a single canvas on which a few months in Dr. King’s all too brief life are played out.
These were also events in the life of a nation only 100 years past slavery, 90-odd years past Reconstruction, and, in parts of its territory, deep in the throes of the viscous Jim Crow laws.
Indeed, the Jim Crow South existed roughly from 1877 all the way to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is the focal point of what is beautifully depicted in Selma, directed and mostly (re)written by the young, black female filmmaker DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) – who came to the project late. (Lee Daniels had been previously mentioned as director.)
For her extensive rewriting efforts, DuVernay received no screen credit due to a contractual circumstance that allowed a different person (Paul Webb, author of the original script) to be credited for the job – a circumstance that should be noted whenever Selma’s screenplay is mentioned.
Generals & foot soldiers
As mentioned above, Selma captures the tumultuous events surrounding the marches in the titular Alabama town in the spring of 1965.
Martin Luther King was a leader among leaders in what became a pitched battle with many generals, colonels, and foot soldiers on the side of Good. It was a battle fraught with all the ordinary casualties of war, except that the warriors for justice did not fight back – which happened to be their greatest weapon.
Few of the individuals who made up both the leadership and the masses that marched during those days are remembered today. Selma, for its part, remembers them all, calling many of them out by name in a loud, clear cinematic voice: Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also a producer on the film), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), James Bevel (Common), Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Rev. James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), and so on.
Selma remembers this cadre of freedom fighters, all pillars in a movement that culminated in the city of Selma … or maybe not. More on that further below.
Overcoming copyright issues
Also remembered in Ava DuVernay’s film are Emmett Till and those Four Little Girls, and all the Strange Fruit of the Jim Crow days that Billie Holiday sang woefully about. She puts them on screen – sad images – such as they were.
DuVernay also remembers who said and did what, and whenever possible she reminds us verbatim. (Lyndon B. Johnson, colorfully rendered by the ever malleable Tom Wilkinson, loved to record things.)
And to her credit, the filmmaker does not shy away from any of the realities of the day. Instead, she embraces them and holds them near because they are our common history – and not just every February.
Of course, that isn’t to say license hasn’t been taken. For instance, those who control the rights to Dr. King’s speeches – DreamWorks, for a movie that was reportedly to have been directed by Steven Spielberg – would not allow the Selma filmmakers used them in toto for this production. No matter.
As it turns out, understanding the intention of a Martin Luther King sermon, combined with extraordinary writing and a great performance, allows one to overcome copyright issues (if you’ll forgive the pun). Also, the truth is that, even if you were to put a gun to their heads, nary an American – black or white – could quote more than the refraining phrase from MLK’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Cinematic historical document
As a result, besides being beautiful in all the ways of cinema, from Bradford Young’s muted cinematography to Ruth E. Carter’s costumes, Selma is a rich historical document laid out schematically: Dates, places, events, meetings, and even individuals are identified by interstitial or title cards.
This device never disturbs the film’s narrative flow or its dramatic structure; instead, it anchors us in time and space while reminding us that we are not merely watching characters in a story, but rather people who actually lived through these events and to whom these things actually happened.
These were people who, whether in the name of Good or Evil, largely behaved as portrayed on screen.
On the side of Evil
On the side of Evil: George Wallace (Tim Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), among others. If it weren’t for the facts, the performances might look like those of the mustache-twirling villains from a past era of filmmaking.
But again, these villains were real – their wretched behavior played out on national television. From the governor of Alabama, who would come to renounce his racism, to the workaday redneck and the president of the United States – Johnson was a Texan known for regularly using what we insist on calling “the N word” – the performances in Selma are in no way exaggerated.
These people were this awful. And they were not the worst of them.
On a par with Lincoln
As cinema goes, Selma is historical storytelling on a par with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which used historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Abraham Lincoln biography (adapted by Tony Kushner) to tell its slightly altered version of that period.
Unfortunately, Hollywood’s take on America’s Jim Crow, much to the chagrin of black folk, has not been even remotely realistic, let alone representative of the actual people and events of the period. Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988) and Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1997) are two particularly sore spots.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Mississippi Burning revolves around two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) hellbent on finding the killers of three Civil Rights workers who, for all purposes, are not Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney – the three real-life murder victims in Mississippi in 1964.
Ghosts of Mississippi, for its part, is based on the true story of well-meaning white attorney Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), who goes after the killer of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.
Neither of these films is about people who took part in the Civil Rights movement – or about black people in general, for that matter. Frankly, Mississippi Burning is so ludicrous that it could not be made today, not even by a white, male British director.
Still, what is most startling about Selma isn’t its painstaking presentation of this painful history, but how salient that history remains nearly 50 years on.
Measured from current events surrounding the voting rights of African Americans to the strained relationship between black folks and the police – a relationship forged on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, on what became known as Bloody Sunday – it’s clear that some things have changed less than we’d like to believe. That is why Selma resonates so deeply, especially among blacks.
But perhaps the measure of Selma’s success may turn out to be neither its box office take nor how many awards it garners, but whether 50 years from now we will be talking about a movie called Ferguson that resonates with events of that day, just as Selma resonates with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, today.
Because for black folks, of which I am one, there is a narrative throughline that runs from Ferguson all the way back to Selma and before, in the ongoing battle for full citizenship and for the right to be wholly enfranchised – which includes something about life, liberty, and justice for all.
Director: Ava DuVernay.
Scr.: Paul Webb & Ava DuVernay (uncredited).
Cast: David Oyelowo. Carmen Ejogo. Tom Wilkinson. Lorraine Toussaint. Cuba Gooding Jr. Tim Roth. Common. Oprah Winfrey. Alessandro Nivola. Giovanni Ribisi. Omar Dorsey. André Holland. Niecy Nash. Martin Sheen. Jeremy Strong. Dylan Baker.
“Selma (2014) Movie Review” endnotes
Martin Luther King on film & TV
Martin Luther King Jr. had previously been the topic of the 1978 television miniseries King, written and directed by Abby Mann.
A multiple Emmy nominee – and a ratings dud – the biopic reunited Oscar-nominated Sounder (1972) actors Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson, in addition to Roscoe Lee Browne, Ossie Davis, and Cliff DeYoung in supporting roles.
Released two years after King’s assassination and including segments directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (both uncredited), producer Ely Landau’s 1970 documentary feature King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis was an Academy Award contender.
A planned Martin Luther King feature biopic to be directed by Paul Greengrass was cancelled in the early 2010s.
Selma movie box office via boxofficemojo.com.
prah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, and David Oyelowo Selma movie images: Paramount Pictures.
“Selma Movie (2014) Review: Disturbingly Pertinent History” last updated in December 2021.