Friday, January 2, 2015
Directed by Ava DuVernay
The reason why we've never had a truly impactful feature film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is because it's hard to tell an honest story about a deity. When the man himself is legend, how can the story be? It's a particular issue with American figures, since films are still more or less run through Hollywood and we still get squeamish about showing our favorite sons with the appropriate blemishes. There's this pre-installed belief that we can't do the person justice. The magic of Selma is that not only is it not afraid to show King as a human being - not a holy martyr, but a human being - but it's also unafraid to bring up a harsh truth that Americans may have forgotten: King wasn't the beloved hero in history until he became history; in other words, white America didn't fully accept him until he was assassinated. Selma is Hollywood filmmaking through and through, director Ava DuVernay playing the usual notes that can rally audiences, but it is also a startlingly direct film that attacks American audiences with their own culture. This is the first impactful film about Martin Luther King, a film that shows the man not as a one-person movement but as a single (albeit important) face among many fighting for the simplicity of justice against a systematic racism that's so garish and unsightly that it's hard to believe it was only fifty years ago.
The movie harkens back to last year's 12 Years a Slave in its use of violence. It's tragic and harsh, and forces the audience to come to grips with its own past while also accepting the uncertain stature of its present. The topical nature of Selma - in the wake of the nation's heightened awareness of white privilege and police brutality - is obvious, but it's important to note that DuVernay was making this film way before the Michael Brown and Eric Garner case put race back to the forefront of our news shows. If Selma feels like a comment on contemporary issues, it's not because it's intentionally so - it's because times have not changed as much as we believe they have. Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave was a much more brutal film, though, and had a higher distaste for humanity. Selma is a less cynical, more sentimental film, and in narrative and tone, it's much closer to Spielberg's Lincoln in 2012. Both films truncated the lives of legendary men to single issue, and both films were attuned to that man's political savvy. Like Lincoln, it was not all sincerity with King. He knew when to play the write cards to get the reaction he wanted. Selma isn't as good as 12 Years a Slave, but it's better than Lincoln. It has a better understanding of it's purpose, which rises above it's Hollywood biopic structure, and allows itself to make artistic criticisms of Americana that Spielberg's film wouldn't dare touch.
What Selma focuses on is the movement to ban voting restrictions in the town of Selma, Alabama, where black voters are disenfranchised at the poles, faced with impossible tasks in order to be able to register to vote. The movie opens with Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) visiting the registrar's office, assured that she has entered all the needed information to get her voter registration. She's denied when she's unable to name all of the fifty-plus representatives in Selma off the top of her head. Martin Luther King (a striking David Oyelowo), fresh off his win of the Nobel Peace Prize, has made the voting restrictions in Alabama his next crusade, and he knows that Selma is the perfect place to stage it. Ran by a Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who wears his hateful prejudice on his sleeve within a state run by Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) who believes that segregation is the basic nature of humanity, King knows that Selma will bring enough tension to get the issue on the front page of the newspaper and on television. King tries to visit President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to try and get the president to force new legislation to reverse Alabama's strict voting policies, but when Johnson turns him down, King knows there is nothing left to do but to visit Selma himself.
King's plan to stage a non-violent protest in the form of a march from Selma to Montgomery (nearly fifty miles to the capital of Alabama) is met with a variety of responses. President Johnson warns King that his group will be beaten, his own wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is fearful that the faceless threats of violence will soon become reality, and meanwhile, King and his group are often met with intimidation from Jim Clark and the rest of the white Selma community. Selma's smart in how it shows these historical events. When family issues cause King to miss the initial march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the violence that bursts out from the Selma police against the protestors is horrific enough to find itself on the network news moments later. The exposure of Southern racism is the prompting of white support, as thousands of all colors come into Selma to join King in the subsequent march. I make the comparison to 12 Years because the way the violence is portrayed - the utter lack of care for human life because of race - presents the argument that the gulf between the American South of McQueen's film and DuVernay's film is not that wide, despite a separation of time being over a hundred years. DuVernay presents that argument with less hostility than McQueen did, but their message is the same. They're both films that are unafraid to face the blood on American hands.
We gave Daniel Day-Lewis the Oscar for creating Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. I can't see why Oyelowo's recreation of King is any less commendable. Both performances are expert pieces of mimicry, with an attention to the detail of vocal cadence and eloquence. Oyelowo's job feels more difficult, because we have a bevy of video and audio recordings of King, his speeches are great in part because they are synonymous with his booming baritone voice. With the help of Paul Webb's smart, well-paced screenplay, Oyelowo paints a portrait of a shrewd man, able to exploit the bleeding hearts to achieve his ultimate goal. He realizes his power of manipulation and is unafraid to use it. Selma briefly but not insignificantly touches on King's issues with marital infidelity, and understands that King's imperfections are what makes this film a unique story. When King makes a startling judgment call at the front line of the second march, he is second-guessed by a number of different supporters, he even doubts himself for a brief moment. Again, like Lincoln, one of Selma's main charms is its ability to take it's well-known protagonist and present him as a fully-fleshed person. There's a level of performance to what King was doing, and the way Oyelowo and DuVernay visualize that performance is a clinic in visual storytelling.
This is Ava DuVernay's third feature narrative film. She's directed a number of shorts and a documentary about the "Good Life Emcees" called This is the Life. Her 2012 film, Middle of Nowhere, was a small domestic drama also starring Oyelowo. Her transition to a bigger, more mainstream form of filmmaking is without trouble and gives us something that we've searching desperately for: a young filmmaker who can make intelligent adult films based on original material. Selma is a film littered with breathtaking sequences and iconic images. It's very strong filmmaking. DuVernay understands the power of images and uses them to reinforce her film's ideals. There are times when Selma is more conventional than you wish it would be, it's dependence on pathos is evident from beginning to end. It's the kind of film you watch and realize you'd be surprised if it didn't win Best Picture. Selma is a studio-financed biopic at its heart, but DuVernay gives the story more edge than it needs and in doing so tells a story so commandingly effective that it leaves you shaken with power of the best of moral cinema. This is the first film since Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X to really take a true pulse of the American Civil Rights Movement, but no other film on the subject has discussed it with such wonderful grace.