February 2021

Selma (2014)

selma-bridgeDIRECTOR: Ava DuVernay

CAST: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen


An uneven but sporadically stirring slice of a turbulent period in American history, Selma does not quite achieve the greatness it reaches for as a film, but serves as an important historical document chronicling events beginning in January 1965 in Selma, Alabama and climaxing with Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Montgomery and President Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Given recent events in the news, Selma feels more timely than ever, and can inspire both reflection on dark aspects of America’s past, and a questioning of how far we’ve truly come.

1965, Alabama: Despite the Constitution granting African-Americans the right to vote on paper, blacks in the South are disenfranchised through a combination of outright intimidation and technical loopholes.  Blacks are subjected to brutal violence, from assaults by police and National Guardsmen to the horrific bombing of a church which kills four young schoolgirls.  Atlanta pastor Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is the fiery and charismatic leader of a swelling civil rights movement orchestrating a series of marches in Alabama against the cautions of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and the opposition of Alabama’s ardently segregationist Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the uniformed thugs under his authority.  King’s first attempt to march his followers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is met with a brutal crackdown by local police armed with clubs, whips, and tear gas that sends many marchers to the hospital and a few to the morgue.  King and his allies determine to return to the bridge and complete the march, while meanwhile dialing up the political pressure on President Johnson to intervene and force Governor Wallace and other Southern diehards to abide by the law granting blacks the right to vote.

The great majority of Selma is from the perspective of Martin Luther King himself.  Rather than the larger-than-life orator viewed from a reverent distance on television, Selma demythologizes him into a very human, multidimensional, warts-and-all portrayal.  King is flawed, sometimes proud, petulant about accepting the help of the more militant Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) after some of Malcolm’s previous scathing criticisms of him, and the film even seems to acknowledge or at least strongly imply his rumored extramarital affairs.  A few of King’s rousing speeches are included, but the majority of his screentime is focused on private moments, both brainstorming and strategizing with his inner circle, and domestic scenes with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), whose support is pushed to the breaking point by harassing telephone calls threatening the lives of their children.  Away from the cameras, King wrestles with self-doubts and agonizes over the mounting costs of his crusade.  Under the directive of J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), the FBI harasses King and his family and sends his wife an audio tape purportedly of him having sex with another woman.  Clearly, Selma‘s goal is to present King as the flesh-and-blood warts-and-all human being that he really was–vulnerable, plagued by private self-doubts, susceptible to moments of weakness–instead of an untouchable saint.  Such a depiction serves only to make King more relatable and more human, not less sympathetic, or his cause and the fearless dedication which ultimately cost him his life any less worthy of admiration.

The “bigger picture” in Selma is the dynamic between King and President Johnson, which is both a tactical struggle and a battle of wills.  Johnson is himself a Southerner who prides himself on his civil rights legislation but clashes with King’s aggressive (albeit non-violent) tactics and urges baby steps and appeasement (“you have one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one”, he snaps at one point) which King sees as wishy-washy stalling and avoidance of facing the problem.  The movie received criticism for its admittedly slanted view of Johnson, who comes across here as a fence-sitting politician unwilling to stick his neck out for disenfranchised blacks.  In fairness, Selma is a movie, not a documentary, and fudging of facts is nothing new even in movies bearing the “based on a true story” tagline (some “based on a true story” films have played a good deal faster and looser with facts than Selma), but it appears a fair criticism that the movie is a little unfair to Johnson, slanting its portrayal to present him as an “antagonist” or obstacle to King’s crusade, roles already filled by Governor Wallace and the thuggish local cops.  If the filmmakers wanted a “villain” other than Wallace, perhaps J. Edgar Hoover, who only appears in one quick scene, could have had a larger role.

Selma wavers between stirring and stodgy.  The movie opens with a bang, literally, with the recreation of the infamous church bombing that killed four schoolgirls, with the explosion coming so abruptly and unexpectedly that some audience members may jump in their seats, adding to the moment’s jarring impact.  The movie does a good job of showing how insidious racism could be, not only embodied by mouth-breathing racist thugs in uniforms, but taking more subtle forms, such as when Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote and is forced to jump through a series of hoops.  When she beats the first two questions by correctly reciting the opening preamble to the Constitution and answering the correct number of judges in Alabama–sixty-seven–she is finally thwarted when asked to list all sixty-seven of them by name.  Needless to say, many or most white voters would not be able to answer such questions either, but in the Jim Crow South, they weren’t the ones being required to.  In a way, sneaky low-key forms of racism like this can be more dangerous than outright assaults or bullying because they’re harder to root out.  In addition to small revealing moments like this, some of the most fascinating segments of Selma are the political chess games among King, President Johnson, and Governor Wallace.  We see how masterminding the civil rights movement required King to be not only a charismatic orator, but a calculating political strategist.  There were times when hard choices had to be made, such as pushing on with the march on Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of certain violence in the knowledge that cameras are recording, and the brutality of the local cops will be exposed for the world to see.  In fact, it is the brutality with which the cops put down the bridge march which leaves even many white viewers appalled, and in the second, successful march, one-third of King’s fellow marchers were Caucasian.  King agonizes over the sacrifices, but also recognizes the impact they can make on shaking both fence-sitting blacks and indifferent whites out of their apathy (an earlier scene in which Governor Wallace arranges for police to mount an assault on marchers at night with no cameras around demonstrates why King’s “in your face” tactics were necessary).  But while the back-and-forth political maneuvering is intriguing, there are too many scenes where characters launch into earnestly overdramatic speeches that feel more like scripted, pre-rehearsed “moving” monologues than things people would naturally say.  In these moments, Selma slips into a preachy history lesson, and the pace grows sluggish.  On the other hand, the brutal crackdown of the first Edmund Pettus Bridge march, and the climactic march on Montgomery, concluding with King’s rousing “I have been to the mountaintop” oratory, are stirring sequences.

selmaThe low-profile cast is strong.  David Oyelowo exudes magnetism and charisma, and his recitations of King’s speeches are powerful and impassioned.  He’s also good in lower-key, subdued scenes, especially when he comforts the grandfather of a murdered activist, but it’s in King’s speeches where he really comes to life.  Carmen Ejogo is also solid as King’s conflicted, long-suffering wife Coretta (incidentally, both King and his wife are played by British actors).  While King and the activists surrounding him are played by low-profile actors, a few familiar faces pop up in the supporting cast, including Giovanni Ribisi, the ever-loathsome Tim Roth, and walk-on roles by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen, along with bit parts from the likes of Dylan Baker, Alessandro Nivola, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.  Oprah Winfrey, better-known as a mega-popular talk show host than her occasional acting roles, shows as she has before that she can appear in a movie and believably play a role without being distracting.  Insofar as there’s an acting misstep, Tom Wilkinson is oddly cast as Lyndon Johnson.  There’s nothing really “wrong”, per se, with Wilkinson’s acting, but he doesn’t look or sound like Johnson, and we never really see “Lyndon Johnson” instead of “Tom Wilkinson” (this is in contrast to Oyelowo, who’s easy to accept as Martin Luther King).

Selma doesn’t quite grasp the greatness it obviously clutches for–among films centering on the abuse of African-Americans, 12 Years a Slave makes a more powerful impression–but it’s an intriguing, often stirring snapshot into one of the most turbulent periods of the 1960s civil rights movement.  Especially viewed in the context of today’s current events–the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, as one obvious example–Selma feels timely and relevant, and while paying tribute to the paths that were paved by King and his allies, it also causes us to question how much has yet to be accomplished.

* * *