In the past, I’ve published more than a few rants about flimsy movies made for pandering to black audiences in the wake of Tyler Perry and The Blind Side. I’ve also said my piece about movies that proclaim “racism is bad” in overly simplistic and dichromatic terms, like that’s enough to constitute something new and provocative.
A biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could easily have been more of the same, but Selma intrigued me pretty much immediately. The trailers showed a film that used the racial protests of the ’60s in a way that strongly resembles the protests of today. From class inequality to police brutality (and yes, demonstrations for and against bigotry), it seems like there have been no shortage of grievances to publicly vent. Not a week seems to pass without word of some new march on the streets and the efforts to try shutting it down. As such, a film that examines the power of non-violent protest could not be more relevant right now. And exploring the subject by way of Martin Luther King — a man who came to be deified for his non-violent methods — was frankly quite brilliant.
But oh, gentle readers, Selma is relevant in so many other ways, and it’s a far superior movie for it.
The film gets points right out of the gate for being a movie that explores a short period of time in depth, rather than some decades-long affair that spreads itself too thin. In this case, Selma begins as Martin Luther King Jr. (played here by David Oyelowo) accepts his Nobel Peace Prize in October of 1964. So MLK has already made a name for himself and segregation has been outlawed by this point. Of course, some Southern states have to be dragged out of Reconstruction kicking and screaming, so there is no shortage of problems facing Negroes in the former Confederacy.
One of those problems is that even though black people are now technically allowed to vote, the southern states put so many obstructions in the way that it’s borderline impossible for black people to register. This naturally has a ripple effect, since white politicians have no incentive to serve the citizens who can’t vote for them. Moreover, because only registered voters are eligible for jury duty, this means that getting a conviction for racially motivated crimes against Negroes is next to impossible.
Thus MLK and his colleagues choose their next battle, going to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to demand additional legislation, ensuring that voting rights for all are protected and enforced. But old LBJ isn’t keen to revisit a problem that’s technically been addressed already (especially since ending segregation in the first place was such an uphill battle), and he’d much rather move on to the Vietnam War, fixing poverty, and a whole nation’s worth of other problems. So denied, King turns his attention toward the town of Selma, Alabama, where racial tension is hot and the infrastructure for a protest is already set.
Because this film is based on a true story, I don’t mind spoiling that these marches eventually result in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The very same act that was struck down by the Supreme Court a couple years ago. Given that occurrence and the call for new Voter ID laws that seems to come up every few years, this reminder of why we ever needed the Voting Rights Act could not be more timely.
Though the movie does have its share of two-dimensional racist assholes and of course race is a huge part of the discussion, the film is far more concerned with the concept of expression. It’s about our freedom, our right, and our obligation to make our voices heard in spite of all those more powerful than we are who would keep us silent to preserve the status quo.
This brings us to the matter of non-violent demonstration and why anyone would want to take part in it. To start with, it beats the alternative. Protesting with violence and shows of force against more powerful opponents is a losing proposition, with consequences that would only result in more bloodshed on both sides for years to come. And of course, doing nothing isn’t an option either.
But how does non-violent demonstration accomplish anything? Well, the movie seems to argue that the demonstration itself does nothing. However, it does stir things up so that someone will hopefully make a mistake and give some room for leeway. And usually, that “mistake” means violence. Specifically, violence against the protesters who (in theory) don’t fight back. So basically, non-violent protesters are volunteering to be martyrs, putting themselves at risk of injury or death, never mind imprisonment.
And wow, does this movie portray violence in a heartbreaking manner. Director Ava DuVernay shows us every beating, bombing, and shooting with a kind of visceral punch that I haven’t seen since The Hurt Locker. She tends to rely quite heavily on slow-motion, granted, but slow-mo was practically made for scenes of falling debris or blood hitting the floor. Perhaps more importantly, DuVernay makes sure to show the rest of the country watching TV and reading the papers, to see how people of all races all across the country are being moved and affected by the atrocities happening in Selma.
Every protester who takes such a monumental risk — even for something as crucial as a basic American right — is a hero, and the film makes sure to let us know it. Yet the movie also shows us James Forman (Trai Byers), co-leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who is every bit as fervent about voting equality but doesn’t want to stick his neck out that far. He has other reasons, of course, but it mostly has to do with Forman’s own ego, his lack of trust in Dr. King’s methods, and his skepticism that anyone who marches with him will come back alive. It’s tough to blame him, really, especially since it’s not like he’s been sitting on his ass doing nothing all this time.
But let’s move on to the film’s portrayal of Dr. King himself. “Believe the hype,” that’s all I can really say. I’ve seen David Oyelowo in a few movies here and there, but he never registered as much more than a competent supporting player. In this movie, Oyelowo proves himself a bona fide superstar, taking this legendary persona and bringing it to the screen with aplomb. No joke, Oyelowo brings such fire and charisma to this performance that I honestly believed I was watching one of the greatest orators in this nation’s history. Whether MLK is inciting a protest or soothing the bereaved, Oyelowo sells it in a way that looks completely effortless.
Yet the movie takes considerable pains to show what MLK is like behind the scenes, when he’s composing his sermons or conked out on a couch after a long day. His marital infidelity is addressed, ditto for the strain that his activism puts on his family. Basically put, the film shows Martin Luther King not as a saint or a demigod, but as a man who believes in this greater cause so strongly that he’s put it before his own life. And to that end, he’s shouldered a far greater load than any human being can physically, mentally, or emotionally bear. King may have been a crucial part of the movement as a figure to rally behind (so he couldn’t quit even if he wanted to), but the film makes it clear that he was still only one man who was leaning on so many others to help accomplish what he couldn’t alone.
(Side note: I was sort of amused to recall that Oyelowo previously had a supporting role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which he played the son of Oprah Winfrey’s character. Winfrey also appears in this movie, borderline unrecognizable as voting activist Annie Lee Cooper, and she also produced the film through her Harpo Films shingle.)
The black supporting actors in this movie all do superbly well, in large part because they all do such a great job of blending into their characters and there are so very many of them to help carry any given scene. It’s hard to single any of them out, though Carmen Ejogo more than earns some recognition for her portrayal of Coretta Scott King. Ledisi Young also has a brief but memorable scene as Mahalia Jackson, and Cuba Gooding Jr. appears just long enough to contribute a few lines without embarrassing himself.
The white actors in this movie, I’m sorry to say, don’t fare nearly as well.
Let’s start with LBJ. There’s already a lot of backlash against this movie where LBJ is concerned, claiming that this film made the president out to be the villain of this story. There are accusations that the film portrays President Johnson as a backstabber and an adversary rather than the staunch ally to MLK that he was in real life. I’m pretty sure these accusations are coming from people who saw a very different movie than I did.
Granted, there’s one scene in which it’s implied that LBJ tacitly allowed J. Edgar Hoover (played by Dylan Baker with his unique brand of sliminess) to go ahead and try blackmailing King. It’s unclear whether Hoover really was acting with presidential approval against King, but putting that scene (and not even a scene, just one line!) in this film was a bad move, completely at odds with how President Johnson is portrayed in the rest of the movie.
The character puts it best when he says that he’s a politician and MLK is an activist. President Johnson’s responsibility is to try and keep everybody happy, and he can’t do that by devoting all of his time to a single cause the way King has the luxury of doing. And it’s not like Johnson is entirely opposed to King or the cause of racial equality; quite the contrary, he shows a great amount of respect for both. He would just prefer it if this whole issue settled itself quietly and peacefully so he can turn to other matters.
Moreover, King repeatedly insists that LBJ could fix this problem at any time with a stroke of his pen when of course that’s not true. The whole process of crafting legislation is huge and unwieldy, specifically designed so that no one person can pass any law they want at any given time. Then again, the film might have done a better job of making that point if it had shown more of the President struggling to write something that Congress can work with. Hell, there’s a scene in which King and his colleagues are bickering over which voting-related issue to tackle first, trying to decide which obstacle to Negro registration takes priority and how that obstacle can be fixed with legislation, and none of them find a conclusive answer. If they can’t accomplish that in a few hours, how is Congress supposed to do it in the same amount of time? But of course that’s not the story the filmmakers were trying to tell.
If any liberties were taken in portraying the relationship between MLK and LBJ (as they most probably were), I suspect that they were taken for the purpose of showing the president as a man with a tremendously difficult job, trying to balance several different agendas coming from so many different people who say “oh, the president could fix this so easily if he wanted to,” like he had any control over what Congresspeople and citizens can do or think. If this was indeed the filmmakers’ intention, then chalk up another parallel to modern-day politics.
(Side note: President Johnson was well-known for taking his aides with him to the bathroom, not content to let bowel movements interrupt his responsibilities as president. Mercifully, this quirk of the Johnson administration was not included in the film.)
All told, I think that LBJ’s portrayal in this movie wasn’t quite as nuanced as the filmmakers might have liked, but still enough to get the point across. He’s certainly not the villain of the movie — that distinction goes to Alabama Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth. He’s played in this film as your standard ignorant, white trash, bigoted fucktard without the slightest hint of anything the least bit redeemable. This despite the fact that the real George Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP for speaking out against the KKK in 1958, and lost that election in a landslide. He then took a hardline racist stance, famously proclaiming “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” in his 1963 inaugural address. That attitude lasted right up until his final term as governor in the 1980s, when he set the record for black appointments to state offices and cabinet positions. And while all of that was going on, he tried and failed four — count ’em, four — presidential campaigns.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the record of a man who firmly believes to the depths of his dark and withered soul that racism is good and just. These are the actions of a career politician who will say and do anything to get elected. This is a guy who would willingly leave a hundred non-voters (of any race) for dead if it meant getting the approval of a single voter. Someone who is so desperate to hold onto office and keep from getting a real job that he would fight for the most evil and despicable deeds that he thinks his constituents want.
Doesn’t that sound so much more interesting than the same cartoonishly evil racist stereotype we’ve already seen umpteen billion times?
The other white characters are mostly unremarkable, though Jeremy Strong does quite nicely as the martyred James Reeb. Aside from him, we’ve got Giovanni Ribisi wearing the worst bald cap I’ve ever seen, Dylan Baker playing his brand of creepy for all of one scene, and Martin Sheen appearing far too briefly.
As a final miscellaneous note, it’s worth noting that the FBI serves as our narrator, delivering bits of information to the audience by way of intel they’ve gathered on Dr. King. This was a stroke of genius. Not only is it so much more creative than your typical voice-over or title card, but it keeps the FBI as a constant off-screen presence and serves as a reminder that King is under perpetual scrutiny. It’s a great touch.
Selma has some problems, sure, but it’s still easily one of the year’s best films. It approaches the Civil Rights Movement — a period that’s already been done to death — from a very new angle to comment on modern politics in a new and insightful way. Thus we have a film that’s powerful and moving without pouring on the white guilt or making the viewer uncomfortable (I’m looking at you, 12 Years a Slave). It’s ultimately a film that celebrates freedom of expression, arguing that each and every one of us has the power to affect the greater system for good or ill. That’s an uplifting message, delivered in a way that can be appreciated by all colors and creeds.
If nothing else, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo both turn in superlative work that deserves to get them recognized by the Academy and/or the A-list, ASAP. The rest of the film around them is just fine, but those two alone are enough to merit the price of a ticket, paid at your earliest convenience.