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by Brett Gallman

"The explosiveness of a dream deferred."
5 stars

The difficulty with saints is that it’s tempting to keep them perched high on a pedestal, cast in bronze, always awaiting the next sheen to be added to their lore. Constantly reprinting the legend safely preserves the canon. On the contrary, what Ava DuVernay has done with “Selma” is much more daring: instead of dealing with untouchable icons, this is a film that examines men, women, children, and, perhaps most importantly, a moment.

Less a biopic and more a snapshot of the formative months leading to the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “Selma” is couched from the perspective of Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo). While he's set to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, this accomplishment is secondary, as DuVernay opens on a more intimate scale, with King reciting an upcoming speech to a mirror. It’s shot more or less at eye level, a subtle decision that signals the director’s aim to bring King (and various other historical figures) down from his perch in order to observe him as a human being with relatively modest aspirations.

The opening scene yields to a conversation between King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), where the two dream about the day Martin can simply be a preacher in a small college town, a prelude to the domestic turmoil that will later reveal that King was also a man with human foibles. “Selma” doesn’t shy away from bits of the narrative that would be typically excised from ultra-flattering portrayals.

Nor does it shy away from the ugliness of the era surrounding King. It pointedly recalls the absurd difficulty African-Americans faced just to obtain the right to vote in a South still haunted by the specter of Jim Crow. When it’s not revealing this struggle, “Selma” jarringly reminds viewers that four black girls were once killed in a church bombing for the crime of simply being black girls. Politics and government—two institutions theoretically designed to help protect citizens from such treatment—prove to be equally as ugly, as King constantly clashes with Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the urgency of passing further laws to strike down unfair voting obstacles.

This contentious relationship serves as both the crux of “Selma” and the source of its biggest controversy: never mind that it shows King’s personal flaws—apparently it’s beyond the pale that it doesn’t cast LBJ as someone who could just force legislation through Congress, preferring instead to focus on his Great Society platform in the hopes of helping people of all colors. Had DuVernay taken the easy path and reconfigured LBJ as a bullish, one-dimensional opponent to King’s goals, a controversy might be warranted; instead, she rather fairly portrays the 36th president as the complex man he was: a hardline Texan caught up in impossible political games that often made it difficult to do the right thing, even as the Right Thing radiated from nightly news broadcasts relaying horrors from the South.

DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb don’t need to be forgiven for recreating the complicated relationship that existed between the film’s two icons—it is, more or less, how it was, with King playing constant agitator to a president who knew voting rights were inevitable but required shrewdness. Some of the particulars are exaggerated—by many accounts, LBJ did not instruct J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to discredit King and his associates—but “Selma” is a rightly nuanced account of the dynamic between two men whose impact on America is immeasurable. Dramatic shortcuts are almost expected, and none here cripple the film’s historical accuracy, much less its power. It feels correct that both MLK and LBJ emerge from the film as titans bearing scars. A more saintly portrayal would be devoid of all drama.

DuVernay’s treatment of the political mechanizations here is reminiscent of Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as she blends the pulse of a political thriller with the heart of a gut-wrenching drama. Her rhythm alternates between private and public spheres, with the former relayed with an intimate aesthetic that truly brings these characters to life. The film adequately captures the grandeur of King and Johnson’s public appearances, but it’s the smaller moments that give “Selma” its heft, like King and his companions enjoying a meal before discussing their plan of action, or LBJ chastising Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in the Oval Office.

Oyelowo especially captures King’s essence during these scenes. His ability to slip into such a towering figure’s skin and disappear into the role is impressive; actually rendering this historical monolith into a human being is even more astounding. You sense his dreams, his fears, his regrets, his doubts, his resolve. A scene late in the film speaks to the sort of man King was: upon facing a moment of extreme uncertainty, he finds himself in the company of a devoted follower who repeats his own words of encouragement back to King. Oyelowo meets the words with a coy half-smile that speaks volumes about MLK’s determination and humility.

Often shot with polished austerity by Bradford Young, “Selma” sometimes looks the part of a film that could degenerate into empty hero-worship or a film about Very Important Things, a tactic that feels like misdirection once DuVernay begins to peel the nostalgic sheen from a horrifying chapter in American history. The film’s most effective scenes marry the immediacy of those more intimate sequences with very public displays, particularly the events of Bloody Sunday. By the time the film arrives to this sequence, any pretense of rose-tinted nostalgia is gone, here replaced by staggering street-level violence.

Watching those horrific events—which involved a militarized police force brutalizing a group of unarmed protesters—unfold feels less like a reenactment and more like guerrilla filmmaking. Perhaps deliberately, this technique mirrors how this event impacted the nation: for many Americans, the television broadcast of this event must have felt like an invasion into their homes. This was the moment this crisis became very real, and so it is in “Selma.” It’s one of the moments DuVernay rightly shows little restraint because to do so would be a disservice. For any other moment that borders on cloying, obvious manipulation, she manages to pull back; here, she forces audiences to reckon with the inhumane treatment Americans faced—and continue to face—at the hands of the people who have sworn to protect them.

Looking back on it, it’s absurd that anyone once considered this to be any sort of golden age (it’s perhaps the most gallingly misguided Boomer myth); by the film’s end, that’s yet another legend that has crumbled. Yet, for all it tears down, “Selma” is remarkable in the hope it inspires. It’s a reminder of what America can accomplish when its citizens aspire to greatness. Again, this isn’t a biopic about historical characters (neither King nor LBJ is present during Bloody Sunday) but a recounting of a moment and its disparate players, from a white preacher (Jeremy Strong) who travels to Selma to join the cause to the various prominent figures from the Civil Rights movements: Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and James Bevel (Common).

The ensemble’s deep bench even reaches down noteworthy Selma residents like Annie Lee Cooper (a woman with the temerity to apply for her right to vote, infused with a nimble mixture of grace and firebrand by Oprah Winfrey) and Jimmie Lee Jackson (a young man murdered in cold blood by police for protesting, played with an indelible fierceness by Keith Stanfield). Other martyrs are strewn throughout, and one can argue that “Selma” is actually their film; perhaps it doesn’t prop up its historical giants because it’s too concerned with the unsung figures that made this moment possible.

Considering that we’ve recently canonized more martyrs in recent years—Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner all come to mind—it’s easy to feel a little cynical about “Selma.” Though DuVernay could not have known that her film would grow even more relevant in the context of recent events, it no doubt has. I wonder how tempting it must have been to splice in footage of Ferguson into the Bloody Sunday sequence or to include a postscript noting the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to overturn the legislation at the heart of the film. That DuVernay resisted says a lot for how “Selma” operates --it might highlight the difficulties these brave souls faced, but is not intimidated by them, even as their ghosts recur a half-century later.

Undeterred, the film powerfully marches forth, climaxing with wonderful archive footage of the famous 50-mile protest from Selma to Montgomery. Up until this point, “Selma” is an exhausting experience: it has incensed, confounded, and challenged. You wonder if there’s any room for hope when you’ve witnessed fellow Americans bludgeoned both physically and spiritually. DuVernay never wavers, however—her film ultimately inspires and reinforces the power of a functional democracy. The heroes of “Selma” represent the best of us, and no amount of cynicism can trump the insistence that we will overcome the demons that threaten to undermine the process.

To this end, “Selma” is the most pertinent and urgent film of 2014, acting almost as an accidental allegory for an age adamant about echoing its atrocities. While it will certainly resound through the ages, let’s hope it only acts that way for 2014—as the song that plays over the closing credits intones, glory still awaits and there is work to be done. Let’s get to it.

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originally posted: 01/12/15 13:50:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2015 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival For more in the 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/15/17 FireWithFire Now that Blacks run the city, Selma has become a typical,Black-run sewer. Yay! 1 stars
2/01/15 Sam Green Great movie; has message in struggles in world today 5 stars
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  25-Dec-2014 (PG-13)
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