Following initial demonstrations led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, a secret night march was planned by activists in the nearby town of Marion. Lacking King’s apparent insight for media-as-witness and, facing police sent by the office of Alabama Governor George Wallace, the night of February 18, 1965 bore a shocking result for the peaceful protestors. Though the Bloody Sunday of 1965 is the major act of violence in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, this earlier clash in her film roars with intensity. The period elements carefully crafted by cinematographer Bradford Young seem lost in the darkness. As the police charge and attack, the camera moves frantically, the sharp, harsh, artificial light of the handful of still-lit street lamps casting warped shadows on walls, silhouettes running in fear consume everything else. The pretense of 1965 momentarily vanishes. In the chaos and brutality of this sequence, we see Rodney King, we see Eric Garner, we see Michael Brown. This night mob of authority ruthlessly attacking those they swore to protect sees DuVernay comment on the present through the past, and that act of temporal mesh is what lifts Selma above so many other recent pieces of historical and political commentary in American cinema.
Selma follows the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in calling for the drafting of the Voter Rights Act, which would follow the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ensure that African-Americans could register to vote, rendering the racist state bureaucracy of the South powerless in blocking applications.1 The course of action in getting the legislation created is a battle for the public’s attention and awareness. After President Lyndon B. Johnson displays an unwillingness to make the Voter Rights Act a priority for the White House, King travels to Selma, Alabama, and drums up a series of marches, using the city as a synecdoche for the widespread problems for prospective African-American voters in the South.2
Ava DuVernay’s feature is caught somewhere between a biopic and historical retelling of the Selma march, often its inability to decide which leads to some narrative lulls. The film’s opening sequence sees King prepare to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway; a fairly staid piece of marital banter in the very first scene, edited in a frustrating shot-reverse-shot manner, positions Selma initially as biopic, and the cut to the actual award ceremony, a fairly limp factual reminder of the international praise King attained, does nothing to shake this focus. It’s unclear why exactly this particular scene in King’s life is necessary to open the story of the Selma to Montgomery march, other than to remind us of his path of peace and perhaps foreshadow the focus on King’s marriage throughout the film. The following sequence, though, alters both tone and aim, a chilling piece of cinema which opens on the innocuous conversation of a group of young African-American girls in a church, then brutally instills in the film an ever-present fear of violence. It calls to mind the the suddenness of barbarity in Gilbert King’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner Devil in the Grove, which chronicles similarly horrific acts of racially-motivated violence in Florida in the ’40s and ’50s.3
Though the Birmingham bombing sequence is shocking and affecting, it takes the first scene set in the city of the film’s name, where Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, delivering a very impressive performance), attempts to register to vote, for the film to achieve a necessary merger of thematic resonance and narrative relevancy. From this scene onwards, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb focus on the process of organising the march and media strategy, ensuring that the film maintains its lock on the importance of a movement, not just one man. It’s worth pointing out that, had the film been more of a straight biopic, it would have suffered considerably. Not just because, as Wesley Morris puts it in his beautiful and sprawling piece on the film, it would be impossible to cover all of King’s life, but also because, as became apparent in some scenes, it would draw further direct comparisons to perhaps the best biopic of the last 25 years, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.4
David Oyewolo’s performance grows over the course of the film. At first, it almost feels like a King impersonation, the pronunciation of words strained somehow in his opening scenes, though as he works his way through DuVernay and Webb’s reworded King speeches (a copyright dispute prevented the filmmakers from using the actual transcripts) he finds his footing. By the film’s end he radiates on the podium. As impressive as Oyewolo is, Canadian actor Stephan James seemed the film’s quiet revelation in his role as student activist John Lewis. When the oft-clichéd title cards arrive at the film’s end, detailing the future of these characters, it’s Lewis’ that is the most powerful, Selma inadvertently charting his life story as well, his future as a still-serving Congressman in Georgia once more reminds us that this film is of today. So much of the underlying power of Selma, then, is in its ability to look forward. Its cast, including Keith Stanfield of Short Term 12 as Jimmie Lee Jackson and Tessa Thompson of Dear White People as Diane Nash, crosses generations, and the powerful subplot involving the students who run the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reinforces this focus on the future.
The film also actively comments on the dissemination of information and media. The intentionally two-dimensional character of Roy Reed, the New York Times reporter played by John Lavelle, whose major sequence is reporting the Bloody Sunday march, reflects even today the reliance on the (predominately white) establishment to attract mass attention, something DuVernay cleverly reflects upon. We see King both recognise and utilise this fact, an early scene sees him plan marches and protests based on the likelihood of the town sheriff to resort to violence or make a mistake. Media strategist isn’t something we usually see attached to the identity of King but here it’s an unexpected pleasure, a grounding of narrative in particulars.
Not all of the factually motivated period grounding works, though. The recurring title cards of FBI reports following King do less to create tension than they do to underline plot developments or name characters on-screen. The appearance of Malcolm X, actor Nigel Thatch a spitting image of the man, is an important one, taking the film’s mostly melodramatic marital tension and giving it an edge through this political third party. Later though, the assassination of X is reduced to mere thematic footnote; the timeline between his onscreen appearance and his announced death, we’re told is “three weeks” but it feels rushed and forced, as awkward as the time jumps which begin Selma.5
The climactic march in the film is also one of its weakest moments, reduced to mere montage of old news footage set to the out-of-place 2011 Fink track “Yesterday Was Hard On All Of Us”. It’s especially egregious because of how compelling the other march sequences are, from the searing clash of Bloody Sunday to the stirring implementation of Odetta’s cover of “Masters of War” in the following march sequence.6 Whilst the final march does feel much more celebratory, especially in light of the LBJ speech that precedes it, the film almost phones this pivotal sequence in, it feels lazily edited and composed.
Bradford Young’s (Killing Them Softly, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) cinematography roots itself in the aesthetic of a faded past, with scenes in Selma itself slightly washed out, with the era-defining pastel colours popping out from every car in sight, reflecting the mass consumerism of the time, whilst the white or brick of every building seems to suggest stasis. As Wilkinson’s LBJ delivers his speech to Congress with the American flag behind him, the red of the flag is darkened, looking like layers of dried blood painted across the expanse of white. The use of handheld camerawork in the scenes of King at the church pulpit gives these sequences a sense of energy and life that a fixed shot wouldn’t allow. We’re positioned as onlookers, albeit with a hyper-intimate perspective. It’s a subtle technique that has an impressive immersive impact, particularly with the growing power and intensity of Oyewolo’s performance.
The Oscar race has been nothing but damaging to the perception of Selma.7 The film isn’t a conventional biopic or historical account, the likes of which have garnered statuettes for decades.8 It’s very association with the Academy seems to have made people assume an overbroad historical re-telling, ignoring the fact that, regardless of its trophy cabinet, Selma is an impressive and assured film from an underappreciated independent filmmaker.9 DuVernay isn’t a studio’s hired gun, churning out a watered down, emotionally charged bio of whichever British figure hasn’t had the cinematic treatment in a while.10 Her film is something more than award-baiting, it’s an urgent and timely cry for recognising the tragic circular nature of history and the need to stand up against that ever-ebbing tide.
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