Silver Screen: Selma ****1/2
In Selma’s opening scene, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) rehearses a speech in the mirror, then grumbles, “That’s not right.”
The faux King is correct; the speech is literally off the mark. That’s owing to the fact that another studio owns the rights to King’s famous addresses, which forced director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb to redraft approximations of the actual speeches. Ridiculous as this is, the obstacle might have made the movie even better— certainly not because King’s speeches need a punchup, but because we’re already familiar with them. It would be easy to gin up drama by showing a strong actor reciting King’s powerful public addresses, but Selma does much more by showing us something we haven’t already seen before.
As the title suggests, Selma isn’t a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, but a portrait of the turmoil and political maneuvering surrounding the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to raise awareness for equal voting rights. King orchestrated the demonstration and as such was a major player, but the story of the Selma march is also about the sacrifice of the many volunteers, the bullheaded ignorance of the opposition, and the repercussions that rippled from the statehouse to the White House.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or religion. The subsequent murder of four young black girls in a church bombing was but the most stark reminder that progress continued to be hindered in the South, where local officials used loopholes and intimidation tactics to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. That also meant they were unable to serve on juries, which led to all-white officials overseeing a warped justice system accessible only to other whites.
King sees how dire the problems continue to be in the post-segregation South and determines to make Selma his staging ground. He selects that city in particular for the intensity of its animosity and the capriciousness of its racist leaders, from Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) all the way up to the notorious Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth). The tactic is the movie’s earliest indicator that King is not just an inspiring figure, but a wily strategist. He knows that the protests can only have an effect if they graphically illustrate the virulence of the South’s state-sponsored racism to the American public. That means making a bloody sacrifice and goading the good ol’ boys into busting heads on TV.
Nonviolent resistance sounds warm and idealistic, but is brutal in practice. DuVernay powerfully illustrates this in an early scene in which protesters surround the courthouse in attempt to register to vote. The frame fills with chaos as police officers use billyclubs to batter men, women, and the elderly alike. Quick cuts to King, his face contorted with torment over the day’s awful necessity, underscore the difficulty of stifling a violent response and personal agony as he watches innocent people endure thuggish abuse at his behest.
Selma’s closest point of comparison is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, another portrait of a burdened leader that’s narrowly focused on a specific incident. Lincoln was just as concerned with the thorny realities of politics and backroom dealmaking as it was with a heroic depiction of its protagonist. So too does Selma spend much time on the negotiations between King and Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), as well as Johnson’s own dealings with Wallace and Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker).
Unlike Lincoln, however, Selma isn’t able to delve quite so deeply into the psychology of its storied leader. DuVernay doesn’t so much penetrate the mind of King as she does orbit around him, both drawn in but held at a distance by his gravitational force. What she conveys so very well is the immensity of the responsibility on his shoulders and the chaotic atmosphere to which he brought some peace. That’s no small thing. DuVernay also makes time to show that King’s power resided largely in the resilience he inspired in others. That includes a broad sweep of humanity, both black and white, and here specifically his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), and an army of peaceful warriors that includes clergymen (Wendell Pierce), future congressman John Lewis (Stephan James), and elderly activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).
This is stunning, stirring stuff. DuVernay, working with talented cinematographer Bradford Young, keeps the camera mostly static and tightly controlled in the more intimate scenes, then uses every inch of the big screen in gorgeously rendered wide shots and slow pans to capture the breadth of the protests and the horrible tension as violence breaks out on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In it grandest moments, Selma is as imagistic and sweeping as any movie of 2014.
Kudos to the impressive DuVernay for making an important film that is never tripped up by its own importance. Selma is a wonderfully acted ensemble piece that never stiffens into dry historical reenactment but rather breathes life into a grim but glorious struggle.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.