Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson
With a brilliant cast, masterful cinematography, and superb direction by DuVernay, Selma is both a rousing tribute to a crucial event in the Civil Rights Movement and a spectacular character study in context, where Oyelowo’s gripping portrayal of Dr. King more than makes up for any of the film’s minor flaws.
Crafting a fictionalized account out of historic events is always a challenge, especially when it comes to the Civil Rights movement. The horrors described in Selma are still recent memory for those who lived it, and as with anything concerning race and discrimination, most moviegoers arrive with strong and deeply felt opinions on the matter. And yet despite these hurdles, director Ava DuVernay managed to create a powerful and haunting docudrama that does justice to the horrors of the period without losing focus on the drama side of the equation, and in the process painted a riveting portrait of Dr. King and his comrades. This delicate balance - of staying true to the actual occurrences without becoming what amounts to a failed documentary - is deftly handled by all parties involved, and the end result is nothing short of spectacular.
The cinematography is a crucial component to the film’s effectiveness; from the in medias res opening, where King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize is juxtaposed to the tense build-up and tragic outcome of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, to the stirring speech given at the end, the story was enhanced and supported by the smart choices of cinematographer Bradford Young. When filming in this genre, it’s all too easy to succumb to shooting it as if it were a documentary - complete with an unvarying camera angles and mock-up “interviews.” Young eschews the well-worn path and instead puts focus on the emotional gravitas of his subjects, panning the camera out to capture the momentous “Bloody Sunday” event on Edmund Pettus Bridge, or zooming in for an intimate look at the vulnerability and uncertainty of the Civil Rights leaders in discussion of their next move - all done with consistency and without overwhelming the viewer.
Of course, even the best cinematography would be just a tacky light show without strong actors to shine upon, and Selma definitely delivers a barrage of powerful performances, especially David Oyelowo in the central role of Dr. King. While he was, admittedly, a surprising choice for lead, he proved more than capable, igniting the screen with a galvanizing display of acting prowess. As King, Oyelowo depicted both his power as a speaker, and his savvy social and political maneuvering; Oyelowo was equally comfortable at the preacher’s podium and in the White House before President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), pressuring the reticent politician to put a voting rights bill for African-Americans into action. But for all his charisma and moral power, King is also a flawed and beleaguered man, surprisingly vulnerable and torn between family responsibilities, his Civil Rights commitments, and his growing need to speak for the dispossessed of all races. To that capacity, Oyelowo really shines, adding heartfelt humanity to a figure so often shrouded in myth by admirers and detractors alike. King’s marital problems (including a tasteful yet pointed nod to his indiscretions), his insecurity over the success of his endeavors, and the despair on his face when he actually fails are all conveyed with clarity by Oyelowo, accompanied by Young’s stellar camera-fu, and quite unlike any depiction of the great man except possibly the American Experience documentary “Citizen King.”
While Oyelowo’s performance is the standout, the rest of the cast did a fine job of breathing life into their historical roles. Special mention goes to Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King; while somewhat out-of-focus for the majority of the film - especially compared to her renowned public actions of later years - she is nonetheless a continued and powerful presence, and is practically the locus of her husband's humanization. The interpretation of their marriage as close but permeated with a subtle tension drove home just how vulnerable King and his movement was to the workings of the human heart, and should be a blueprint for any movie striving to show the difficulty in reconciling life at home with the ambitions of a higher calling. One particularly memorable scene - arguably the best in the whole movie - showed how the continued threats and harassment the FBI and others inflicted upon Mrs. King and their children placed considerable strain on a relationship already on the rocks. As his besieged wife gave a firm but quiet admonishing of how badly their home life had been affected by their Civil Rights crusade, King could only sit helplessly in his chair, enshrouded in the low light of the living room, completely open to a most timely onslaught. The impact of this scene - in communicating the vulnerability of a man and a movement whose ultimate triumph was far from inevitable - was the end result of all cinematic elements coalescing in near-perfect unity to exemplify the very best traits of this movie.
Obviously, any biopic or docudrama is open to the charge of historical inaccuracy, and Selma is no different, with most of the controversy swirling around its treatment of Lyndon B. Johnson. While Wilkinson’s performance as an overstretched and weary politician with noble intents of his own design was a pleasure to watch, I was also uncomfortable with how the film played up the antagonism between him and King. In reality, Johnson was relatively close to the Civil Rights icon despite their occasional disagreements, viewing him as an essential part in the construction of his Great Society. While I don’t believe that a strict, by-the-letter adherence to historical source material is a necessary or even desirable aim for a docudrama, I question the choice to have Johnson descend into obstructionism on purely creative grounds, as the film had enough villains to carry the plot - Sheriff Jim Clark and Governor George C. Wallace, for instance, with the latter serving as both a better foil to King and a better representation of the corrupt institutions that enabled racism to thrive. Although you can make the argument that Johnson's antagonism shows how institutions can fuel oppression without overt racism or even belligerence, a more true-to-life depiction would have added to the considerable nuance of the movie and really illustrate how two men, both pursuing separate but equally noble goals, can place an obstacle before any worthy cause if either fails to see the bigger picture.
Still, this and every other flaw in Selma are minor inconveniences at most, and fail to take away from its power. As a humanizing biopic, a docudrama with modern relevance, and as a cinematic master stroke, Selma succeeds beyond all measure and carries its strengths up to and beyond its closing credits, This is one of the few movies made in the past year that might just have you choked up in the end - not because of any cynical manipulation of sentiment, but simply due to the force and meaning of its message and the skill by which it's delivered.