What better way to spend the Martin Luther King holiday than seeing Selma, which is about a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights–the march from Selma, a city notorious for its refusal to allow blacks to register to vote, to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to lay at the feet of its segregationist governor the demand for justice. It is, quite simply, an outstanding work that makes history come alive without being hagiography.
The film has engendered some controversy, both for its snubs at the Oscars (it did receive a Best Picture nomination, but no nominations for director, screenplay, or acting) and for its bending of history at the expense of President Lyndon Johnson. I’m not enough of a Johnson scholar to comment on the latter, but as to the former, it is a shame, as director Ava DuVernay, writer Paul Webb, and lead actor David Oyelowo all deserve nominations.
Selma begins with King (Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize late in 1964. He is world famous, and the Civil Rights Act, which federally outlawed segregation, has been passed almost by sheer force of will by Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). But King wants a voting law passed, because without it, blacks can gain no political power in the South. The opening scene shows a woman (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) attempting to register. She has dutifully filled out all the paperwork, has memorized the preamble to the Constitution, and knows how many county judges Alabama has. But then the registrar asks her the judges’ names. Of course he would never do this with a white person.
King swoops into Selma, with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). The SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee) already are. A turf war erupts. One of the best things about this film is it doesn’t sugar coat the side of righteousness. In a daring move that I don’t think has been done in any film about King, it tacitly acknowledges his extramarital affairs.
A march is proposed, and is unsuccessful, and is now referred to as “bloody Sunday,” as the marchers are ruthlessly beaten by state troopers. DuVernay, in her third feature, shows a firm hand here, showing the horrors straight up, without manipulation.
Meanwhile, King presses Johnson for legislation, even though the latter doesn’t want to move on the issue yet. But TV coverage and front-page news of innocent people being viciously beaten stirs the waters, and for the next march, white Americans, mostly clergy, head to Selma.
I read a comparison of this film with Lincoln, and it’s apt. Both are movies about great men, but portrayed in stories about backroom maneuvering. King and Johnson, though basically on the same page, are playing a chess game, with lives at stake. Like Lincoln, King was an indispensable man, a man who whether by luck or design was in the right place at the right time, and without whom things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.
Selma is beautifully acted, most of all by Oyelowo, who shows the man, not the myth. The film had the obstacle that it could not use his copyrighted material (it reminds me of Pollock, a movie about a painter that couldn’t show his paintings). But we see how articulate and quick-thinking the man was, mostly in his off-the-cuff responses to reporters, when the pressman’s eyes light up hearing the silver-tongued pronouncements live and in person.
I also admired Wilkinson, who though British had the jowly chief executive down (though didn’t quite catch the accent); the same for Tim Roth, as the bigoted Governor Wallace, who somehow managed to stay in politics a long time before he was paralyzed by an assassination attempt. Of the many rights’ workers, I think the best sub-plot was that of John Lewis, played by Stephan James. Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia, was part of SNCC, but saw the greatness in King and rose above petty bickering. He had his skull fractured during the first march.
The crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, which led out of Selma, and where the carnage took place, is a key moment in civil rights history. I’ve heard more than commentator say without it there would be no Barack Obama. Of course, as recent events have shown, we’ve still got a long way to go. If only we had someone like King now.
My grade for Selma: A.