Published Jan 08, 2015It's hard to disconnect the timeliness of Ava DuVernay's Selma, which focuses on a few months of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, from the past few months of protests in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This becomes glaringly apparent as Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo, in an outstanding performance) eulogizes the death of protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of a police officer in the film. Filming of Selma wrapped shortly before Brown's death, and although Ferguson is alluded to in the song "Glory" by Common (who plays civil rights activist James Bevel in the film) and John Legend that plays over Selma's closing credits, director Ava DuVernay primarily achieves present day relevance by deftly balancing macro-political events and strategy with necessary emotional heft rather than a heavy-handed focus on either. This weighting is established firmly at the beginning, as a scene in which King delivers a speech for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is followed by a jarring depiction of the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church that killed four young girls in 1963.
While King is the central character, Selma is not a sweeping biopic of his life. Instead, it sharply focuses on efforts of African Americans to gain the right to vote that would be contained in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This allows the film's narrative to delve deeply into the political and interpersonal machinations that led to that event, allowing for an array of fascinating character studies from a very strong cast.
The structural inequities and voting disenfranchisement in Alabama are distilled in a scene in which Annie Lee Cooper (played by Selma producer Oprah Winfrey) is unfairly humiliated by a registrar after attempting to add her name to the voting list.
King's efforts to address this issue with President Lyndon B. Johnson is the most dominant relationship in Selma. The portrayal of Johnson by Tom Wilkinson has garnered plenty of scrutiny for the begrudging reluctance to acquiesce to King's politically astute demands, but like every major character in Selma, Johnson's assets and flaws are fully considered with some room for poetic license. Certainly, Dylan Baker's particularly sinister manifestation of J. Edgar Hoover and the intermittent reminder of FBI surveillance being ominously typed across the screen is evidence enough of government interference, but it is important to note King's portrayal is also unfailingly human.
Undeniably, Oyelowo's King is Selma's driving force. Oyelowo, who played a humble bus driver in DuVernay's impressive 2012 Sundance acclaimed feature Middle of Nowhere, not only nails King's public persona by channelling his stirring oratory skills but he also brings well-rounded nuances to his character's private moments, eschewing an unassailable, mythical characterization. While we see King's humour as he playfully hangs out with his fellow allies in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), we also see him racked with self-doubt about his mission on more than one occasion and in a portrait of domesticity, as a husband in the kitchen doing mundane tasks like taking out the garbage. A particularly striking scene at home involves his wife Coretta, played with fierce agency by Carmen Ejogo, confronting King about his infidelities with other women. A meek King is almost rendered speechless by his wife's withering inquisition.
Indeed, Ejogo's Coretta Scott King is not merely content to only stand by her husband's side. Another scene detailing a furtively arranged meeting with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) displays both her resolve and vulnerabilities as she attempts to assist in negotiating the opposing viewpoints on how the civil rights movement is to progress.
DuVernay ensures we see King's strategic nous handling those diverging fissures within the civil rights movement in Alabama, between the SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as the march from Selma to Montgomery approaches. It's in these scenes that Toronto actor Stephan James shines in a breakout performance, playing a young version of present-day U.S. congressman John Lewis, who suffers a skull fracture from police at the march.
That pivotal "Bloody Sunday" scene in which Lewis is injured — filmed on the same Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma where Sheriff Jim Clark's police force, acting under the auspices of malevolent Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) brutally bludgeoned non-violent protestors in 1965 — is tough to watch through the lens of Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Pariah), DuVernay's trusted cinematographer. It's a point when the "fog of death" that Ejogo's exhausted Coretta figuratively describes in the film, is literally and terrifyingly brought to life.
And it's also a point when the ultimate sacrifices made by those who were not well-known historical figures like King are sharply brought into focus. Selma's lasting resonance lies in highlighting what countless ordinary citizens like the aforementioned Jimmie Lee Jackson and Annie Lee Cooper, as well as James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and countless other ordinary citizens DuVernay chooses to highlight here, were willing to give up in the face of injustice then, impelling the audience to contemplate what is happening now.