It’s very surprising that a proper cinematic biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important figures in the American Civil Rights Movement, hasn’t been made before.
King’s iconic crusade for racial equality and his personal life have always been at odds with each other in the public eye, and I was genuinely afraid that a biopic about his life would skew either all valorization or all demonization. Luckily, “Selma” comes to us from co-writer/director Ava DuVernay, a filmmaker who has experience with nuanced character portrayals (“I Will Follow,” “Middle of Nowhere”). “Selma” isn’t a film solely about Dr. King, but a depiction of events that led to the March on Selma, Alabama led by King and others in the spring of 1965. Between its stellar cast, lush cinematography, and some pretty heavy parallels to events in Ferguson, “Selma” is as much a film of the moment as it is a film that looks back on the movement with wise and focused eyes.
The film follows King, played by David Oyelowo, as he and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference plan the March on Selma with the hesitant support of the younger leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, while he locks horns with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) about voting rights and addresses fidelity with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). This is the most in-depth rendering of Civil Rights leaders who aren’t Malcolm X ever put to mainstream film, and DuVernay manages to capture the raw fight and feeling behind every action within every frame.
Naturally for such a big operation, King isn’t the only focus in the film, as the film is a virtual who’s who of figures of its time period, ranging from President Johnson to Common as SCLC leader James Bevell, to Oprah as Annie Lee Cooper to SNCC leaders like Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People” fame). These and plenty of other real-life people and events are squeezed into the film, which gives the entire production a sprawling feeling, even though it’s only taking place over the course of weeks rather than years.
DuVernay and co-writer Paul Webb clearly have an appreciation for how the separate elements of the movement came together to form a whole, with both sides (the protestors and the government) working hard to remain one step ahead of their competitors through strategy, action, and attempted strong arming. It almost feels like the same approach that “Lincoln” from two years ago took, re-designing a historical biopic like an “Ocean’s Eleven” movie, but “Selma” keeps its telling of the story grounded and reverent, which I think was the right call overall. I think a more irreverent cinematic approach would have diluted the raw emotion behind the movie that’s kept in check by an FBI file framing device that starts every scene; it grants the proceedings a voyeuristic yet objective view.
The emotions that oozed out of me while watching “Selma” and scenes of protest, violence, and struggle throughout can’t help but be compared to the situation that’s erupted out of Ferguson, Missouri since Officer Darren Wilson gunned down 18-year-old Michael Brown. There’s anger at the fact that not much has changed in terms of perception and treatment of African-Americans as second-class citizens over almost half a century that can be felt here, especially in scenes where young protesters are murdered by police, but also hope in the fact that we can, in fact, overcome. The film may be an overall objective retelling of the events, but it clearly knows where its allegiances lie.
The cast is uniformly excellent across the board, but special attention must be paid to David Oyelowo as King. Filmmakers as diverse as Oliver Stone and Spike Lee have been trying to put the iconic leader on the big screen for years, but it feels like DuVernay was born to put him up there; she and Oyelowo take the humanistic route in the portrayal, shining a light on his skills of leadership and manipulation and strong demeanor as well as his adulterous past and struggles with the younger generation in charge of SNCC. The fact that we got the whole package out of King right out of the gate, and that Oyelowo transcends expectations in the part, feels like a minor miracle. Special attention must be paid to Carmen Ejogo, whose highlights the role Coretta Scott King played as the main source of Dr. King’s support, emotional and financial. It’s a real feat on the part of Ejogo, Oyelowo, and the screenplay that their relationship is grounded in strength, yet marred with trust issues, and make us feel both at the same time without bordering on Hollywood preposterousness, which is a great change of pace.
Beyond the justice it does to its time and its subjects, “Selma” is a compelling drama in its own right. I was worried about this one at first, but DuVernay, her cinematographer Bradford Young, whose eye remains steady and lush, and the cast got this right. Bold, comprehensive, and straight-up kickass, “Selma” gives the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the reverent treatment they deserve. Well done!
“Selma” is now playing.
-Dylan “CineMasai” Green