Selma is the chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign to obtain equal voting rights for African-American people. In 1965, King (David Oyelowo) organised an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where he was joined by hundreds of participants. The campaign subsequently led to President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, who also plays the role of Civil Rights activist Annie Lee Cooper.
If nothing else, Selma has a sense of irony. Still, it’s an irony that’s airtight and writ large. In theory at least, it’s a way of saying, ‘Hey folks, we see the big picture and we won’t let it get away’. Selma, in a way, is a reminder of a sour and sober point of cinema history: Hollywood movies aren’t known for their political courage or daring, especially the right-on liberal ones. (And don’t even get started on the black film and black image in American film!)
Well, Ava DuVernay’s much-praised, Oscar-nominated movie about the Martin Luther King-led showdown over Civil Rights in an Alabama town called Selma in 1965 is liberal and right on. It’s so choked with outrage I watched it with a growing sense of emotional and intellectual claustrophobia. Perhaps this tone and mood is intended as a metaphor for the intractable spirit of King. But its irony finally is reductive. Its grim single-mindedness doesn’t open an imaginative space to explore the politics of race in any kind of emotional and psychological detail. It describes a tragedy, positions an ideal and celebrates the struggle.
"it feels thin, and crammed like a mini-series shrunk into two hours"
Paul Webb’s script is written in a kind of historical movie short-hand; brief punchy scenes propelled by high-octane dramatic stakes where there’s the good, the bad and the weak. It’s a passion play pageant that lays out the circumstances, motivations and challenges facing the organisers of the Selma protest; a 50-mile march to the state capital that aimed to draw the world’s attention to the fact that the locals of large tracts of the USA had made it a point of pride to make it impossible for African Americans to vote. It reminded me of toney journalism; its qualities are the same as the best reportage—that skin crawling sense of visceral immediacy and poignant and believable descriptions of time and place, all told with stinging clarity. Selma has the downside of the Saturday broadsheet, too; its confidence, excitement, moral certitude and depth of feeling masks—when it comes to the subtle complexities that it touches and does not penetrate – its essential shallowness. Yet, the basic idea—its dramatic energy—has a compelling resonance. That is, Selma is a movie about political tactics. And that makes it a movie about image and identity as well.
The movie starts pounding away from its first seconds and this moment is the best in the film. Here is Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) staring out of the screen, his eyes a dare, his voice commanding. This is not King the preacher, but the dignitary, in spectacular dress suit. He’s practising an acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize of 1964 and stops and mutters: “I don’t like it.” It’s not the word choice that’s bothering him, but his selection of tie: a lavish ascot. King thinks the boys back home will disapprove. Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo) soothes that wrinkle. From this sweetness, the film shifts to Birmingham USA in 1963. Four little girls are blown to pieces in a church, victims of white supremacists. DuVernay plays this moment like a nightmare: innocence shattered into tiny slow-mo specs of dust. Indeed, this is that rare American film—indie or mainstream—that succeeds in defusing the turn-on appeal of action. This is a violent movie and a lot of people suffer here, and it’s never pretty. It isn’t just a question of context. It’s the way DuVernay and co. choreographs the mayhem; the cruelty feels lived.
The movie wants us to know that King is all too human. He (and we) observe the irony (how could we not?) that while he’s getting an award for peace, the Civil Rights movement is preparing for battle. With the FBI watching every move—secret surveillance field reports are tattooed onto the screen with a corresponding sense of violation—as the dogged and burdened Civil Rights leader tries to get congressional support from a President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who reasons he’s damned if he does and damned if he don’t. (Still, he would rather King as a national leader than Malcolm X.) Meanwhile, King is pulling together an alliance of true believers, who can’t agree on strategy. Amongst them, doubters who feel that the human (and political) cost of King’s policy of non-violence may be both too pricey and negligible. If that weren’t enough, FBI director J. Edger Hoover (Dylan Baker) tries to undermine King’s campaign via domestic vandalism; he sends ‘evidence’ of King’s extramarital activity to Coretta. The King’s bravely hold it together in the face of this. (As they did in life.)
None of this is boring or stupid, it moves along and the tension relentless, but it feels thin, and crammed like a mini-series shrunk into two hours. Indeed, my favorite bit is a break from this kind of tight plotting. King and cohorts arrive in a country home to start work. There’s a meal. Jokes. Back slapping. The small talk shoots back and forth. As a miniature of what it is to be in a group and to be loved, it’s a beautiful piece of realism, captured in long take. The rest of Selma isn’t nearly as alive with this kind emotional truth.
Selma has a self-evident interest in political discourse; ego is a slave to power, image a key motivator and issues—even Civil Rights as the movie would have it—are at the mercy of both. This is not an earth shattering insight. But this intriguing basis for a drama is undermined by the way the plot is organised: it’s like we’re watching two tough teams duke it out and we’re rooting for the underdog. This effect is accentuated by the fact that a pair of King’s opponents, Hoover and Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), are written and played as cartoon villains, an embarrassing choice when the Civil Rights campaigners are superbly complex. Wilkinson’s LBJ is a picture of executive power in agony, capricious and suspicious, a fair weather friend of the movement worried over himself. It’s not a characterisation that’s convincing (though, for the story, it’s convenient), but at least he comes off as human.
Yet for all its evasions, short cuts, and mismanaged ideas, Selma can’t be dismissed. Its modest achievements engross. Most of the acting is fine and the set pieces like King’s speeches (based on his words) vibrate with power. And I like how in the protest scenes DuVernay and co. fill the widescreen with the protesters: a complex image of strength in solidarity and vulnerability in the face of terror, with Bradford Young’s cinematography coating the whole thing in a vivid glow, like the way the light looks at the close of a dying day.