In the immediate aftermath of watching Selma, I was one of those many people who marveled at what a leap forward it was for director Ava DuVernay, considering the perceived degree of difficulty in shifting from small, intimate dramas to a period picture on a wide scale depicting a signal moment in recent American history. Then I revisited my own review for DuVernay’s prior film, Middle of Nowhere, and I realized the resounding inaccuracy of that perception. Yes, the scale of Selma is very different, most evident in the scenes recreating the various attempts at mounting a protest march the fifty miles from the titular city to the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama. But the core of the two films is markedly similar. There are a lot of choices in Selma that distinguish it from any number of films that try to capture the life of an iconic figure. What makes the difference more than any other — the aspect that elevates Selma to the level of greatness — is an intensely focused attentiveness to the complex emotional undercurrents that shape individuals and their relationship to the treacherous world outside themselves. It’s still relatively early in her career as a filmmaker, but that thoughtfulness with the entangling of interior and exterior lives is already DuVernay’s signature.
In the manner of some other recent film biographies, notably Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, DuVernay’s Selma aims to capture the totality of a towering figure by honing in on a seminal, defining moment. In the case of this rendering of Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), the action to raise awareness of the continuing efforts to prevent black citizens from voting, in direct violation of federal law, provides the spine of the movie. This is no starchy depiction of an event fifty years in the national rearview, nor is it a pious, pure veneration of a noble act. Instead, the film freely, carefully examines the different political and public relations considerations that went into the choice of Selma as a launching ground. King was charismatic and morally powerful, but he was also a skilled tactician, a side of him that the film presents with honesty and admiration. Alabama was a perfect battleground for this skirmish in the long war of the Civil Rights Movement precisely because Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), other Alabama state officials, and local Selma police officers were likely to meet the peaceful action with the sort of undue show of force that would generate headlines and urgent, condemning television news reports. To use a more modern parlance, it was all about the optics.
The preoccupation with exterior perception is present throughout the film, shaping the decisions of not only King and his cohorts, but also their adversaries, who, in one cruelly memorable moment, chose their time to violently repress the protestors precisely because King has briefly left town, sending now disinterested journalists and their prying eyes (and cameras) scattering away until his return. It is also central to King’s conflict with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is reluctant to spend political capital on a voting rights law so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and at the same time he is trying to launch his “War on Poverty.” As recent controversy has noted with misplaced vehemence, this depiction of Johnson as a reluctant proponent of civil rights doesn’t entirely square with the facts of history (Robert Caro noted in the most recent volume of his masterful, still ongoing biography of Johnson, the gruff Texan dismissed his counselors’ urgings to abandon pursuit of the politically difficult Civil Rights Act by asking, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”). Even if it’s not precisely accurate, it feels right, playing as a basically honest act of dramatic license that gives Johnson his proper due as a keenly astute observer and interpreter of the political landscape. It has far more historical integrity than The Imitation Game, which has phoniness running through it like veins in blue cheese, and I haven’t noticed aghast outrage over that movie’s many inventions. Demanding fealty to this one small fragment of the story imposes an undue standard that’s not commensurate with those imposed on other films that swim in the sea of history.
Getting hung up on such details also willfully ignores the incredible achievement of DuVernay’s film. She meets the challenge of a film that is largely about intense conversations about strategies, choices, and repercussions by engaging in a sharp visual creativity. With precise calibration, DeVernay knows when to press in with her camera and when to hold back, taking in the scope of a moment. Without showiness, she frames scenes in unique, artful ways, extending the invitation to literally see King in a new way. There’s an equally innovative approach to the dramatic characterization of King, acknowledging his faults and finding his humor, even playfulness, all without ever compromising the inherent authority of the man. The speeches that should belong to history are instead held in the iron grip of copyright by his feuding descendants, leaving DuVernay and credited screenwriter Paul Webb (DuVernay is said to have had a significant hand in reworking the script, just not enough to satisfy the protective strictures of the Writers Guild to secure herself screen credit for the work) to capture the spirit and energy of his oratory without the exact words. They’ve done so with great aplomb, and the scenes in which King forges the molten metal of moral truth into steely, scalding words — an effect helped greatly by the powerhouse performance of Oyelowo — are a fierce reminder of the weight he carried and the relief his preaching could provide. Within that lies the clearest measure of the triumph of Selma. It is worthy of the man it depicts.