Sunday, February 1, 2015
Movie Review: Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay
Reviewed: 31 January 2015
My parents and grandparents lived through this time in American history from the vantage points of Chicago and Philadelphia. 1965 Selma, Alabama was only thirteen years before my birth in 1978 Chicago. Thirteen years from now was 2003, the beginning of the Iraq War, and I can remember it fully, driving across the Arizona desert, listening to a car radio tell the story that would engulf us for the next decade. History is all around us but difficult to capture when living in it. The history of textbooks and speeches takes on a fierce urgency in Ava DuVernay's powerful and powerfully made film Selma which chronicles the movement as much as the man, giving insight into the swirling forces of the time. It is a film that I highly recommend.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) open the film in a hotel room in Stockholm, dressing for the Nobel Peace Prize Awards. In a steady, workmanlike way, DuVernay sets up King as a man, aware of how he is perceived, conscious of his flaws, steeled towards justice in a country that has never lived up to its hypocritical founding principles. The film becomes an examination of how the city of Selma became the epicenter for marches, protests, violent reprisals by the police, and Dr. King's journey to and through Selma becomes a defining one. King's relationship with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is foregrounded, emphasizing one man's desire to wait and prioritize anti-poverty legislation with the other's refusal to bend on the sickening poll taxes and institutional racism that prevent African-Americans from voting in places where they are the majority. The film swiftly and clearly explains the struggle through a few group conversations about tactics and one heartbreaking woman's attempt to register to vote in the Selma courthouse. Infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) shrewdly orchestrates the sickeningly violent response to the civil rights workers massing in Selma, and Dr. King has to consider the endgame with the events playing out on national television for a mass audience.
There are factions within factions of the civil rights movement, as in any movement, and the tension between the SNCC and the newly arrived entourage of Dr. King manifests itself in debates and heated discussions set in churches and homes. The discussion of tactics and approaches makes the film grounded in this time and space. Malcolm X arrives while Dr. King is temporarily jailed, offering a philosophical feint to bring his followers to Selma to add their movement. All culminates in several marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma into the countryside of Alabama, all the way to the capitol building. The scenes on the bridge are the most heart-wrenching and difficult to watch, almost nightmarish in their swirling, cloudy brutality.
Oyelowo faces the impossible tasks of out-vocalizing and out-speaking one of the most famous American figures. When Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he was not competing against YouTube videos of the President and scratchy archived audio footage of legendary speeches. However, even with that uphill climb, Oyelowo is effective and laudatory, making Dr. King flesh and bone. There was never a moment that I doubted his magnificent performance. The direction is similarly substantive, if not flashy or calling attention to itself. DuVernay's achievement consists in the arrangement of so many moving parts and performances, all well-choreographed and thoughtfully told. She knows when to pull back and show the presidential reaction to these events as well as when to focus on one family's loss. It never feels like history class or the worst parts of school. The film is not a lecture; it is a moving work of art.
A character in the film talks to Dr. King, informing him that he was born the son of sharecroppers in 1880's, and that legacy of slavery contributes to his relentless driving to register to vote and make change. To just stop and consider that: marching alongside Dr. King and his movement were people who were born the 1880's, a scant twenty years after Appomatox Courthouse and end of the Civil War. About twenty years. Time itself is the subtext of DuVernay's film, and many people were clubbed, beaten, and even killed in the march towards a more tolerant, albeit imperfect, union with access to the ballot box. And America remains that imperfect place. Would I call the film relevant in light of the events of recent days? Absolutely. However, I cannot think of a time when Selma would not be relevant.
I think of Dr. King and his movement, standing together on that bridge. To march upright into the waves of hatred and violence. To risk bodily harm and worse for what you believe. To have the courage to do what others cannot or will not. To dream and head towards that dream. Selma's power comes from the power of people to demand a better world than the one we are given.