‘Selma’ movie review: Politically salient in the early 21st century
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 and its emotional weight accrues to him. Just like what took place in Selma, Alabama, back in 1965.
In fact, Oyelowo’s presence is as transfixing as that of the young Ben Kingsley in his transformative interpretation of Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 titular classic about one of Dr. King’s inspirational figures. Unlike Gandhi, however, Selma is a single canvas on which a few months in Dr. King’s all too brief life are played out. These are events in the life of a nation only 100 years past slavery, ninety-odd years past Reconstruction, and, in part, 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 the events depicted in Selma. These are played out clearly, dramatically, and beautifully in all the ways of cinema, under the direction of young, black, female filmmaker DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere), who came to the project late – Spike Lee and Lee Daniels had been previously attached to Selma – and who rewrote the script from page one. For her screenwriting efforts, DuVernay has received no screen credit as a result of a contractual circumstance that allowed a different person (Paul Webb) to be credited for it – a circumstance that should be noted whenever Selma‘s screenplay is mentioned.
Selma, Alabama, 1965: Common history
As mentioned above, Selma captures the tumultuous events around 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), 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 them by name – a cadre of freedom fighters, all pillars in a movement that culminated in the city of Selma … or maybe not. More on that further below.
In her film, Ava DuVernay also remembers 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 – woeful images – such as they were. She 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, did love to record things.) And to her credit, DuVernay 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.
Getting ‘things right’
Selma is a film with one hand on the rail of history; so it intends to get things right. Of course, that isn’t to say license has not been taken. For instance, those who control the rights to Dr. King’s speeches would not allow them to be used in toto for this or any other production, including Abby Mann’s 1978 TV miniseries King, starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. 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.
Therefore, in addition to 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, actually behaved as portrayed on screen.
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.
‘Selma’: On a par with Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’
As cinema goes, Selma is good 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 Civil Rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Ghosts of Mississippi 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.
‘Selma’ and Ferguson
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, particularly among blacks.
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 today. Because for black folks, of which I am one, there is a narrative through line 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.
Dir.: Ava DuVernay.
Scr.: Paul Webb and 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. Colman Domingo. Wendell Pierce. Tessa Thompson. Keith Stanfield. Stephan James. Omar J. Dorsey. Ledisi Young. Martin Sheen. Trai Byers. John Lavelle. Jeremy Strong. Dylan Baker. Henry G. Sanders. Nigel Thatch. Tara Ochs. Haviland Stillwell. Charity Jordan. Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Stan Houston. E. Roger Mitchell.
Selma movie cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma: Paramount Pictures.