Ava DuVernay’s Selma is apparently the first feature-length attempt at a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. I say “apparently” because it didn’t even occur to me that I haven’t seen a movie about him that hasn’t been a documentary — his voice, his words, his image are so omnipresent in the United States, especially during the federal holiday devoted to him and the month following it, that I didn’t even consider there wasn’t a major fictionalized version of him out there. But this is definitely a version of him we needed — one that contradicts the safe-for-white-folks version of him we see most of the time. DuVernay wanted to show King as a radical speaking truth to power, and in Selma, she succeeds.
In Selma, MLK is a larger-than-life hero and a flawed human, an irreplaceable leader and one part of a movement much larger than any individual. This is the kind of movie you want to see made about your heroes, where the sanitizing is kept to a minimum and there’s no melodrama or clumsy foreshadowing. It’s also cleverly kept to a short but important period in his life, with no sepia-toned flashbacks or tired story beats we see from so many moviemakers who seem to think that in order to capture the essence of an extraordinary person’s life, you need to show the entire timeline.
The movie follows the SCLC as they organize the people of Selma, Alabama (who have been working with the SNCC on the vote there for two years) into demonstrations that will be the staging ground for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King (David Oyelowo) is one of several organizers, and although they care for and defer to him in many ways, he is not the only one in charge. This is a movement organized by many smart, passionate people who have dedicated their lives to the civil rights struggle in the same way King has. DuVernay does a wonderful job showing that, including scenes in which King doesn’t appear; revealing snippets of discussions people were having about the best way to advance civil rights; plainly showing the courage people had to face the violence and very real threat of death over and over again, from campaign to campaign. They’re working on voting rights now, but before that it was segregation, and next it’s jobs, and so on and so forth. There is so much work to do, and so many people doing it.
And yet, heavy is the head. King is the focus of the film, after all, and he’s the one with access to LBJ (played with a disappointing lack of vigor by Tom Wilkinson) and the one who has to give the fiery speeches to galvanize the people (including the white people sitting at home who see the images from Bloody Sunday and start to realize that they need to join in the fight). We see his self-doubt, his growing sense of unease at the FBI’s intense surveillance of his every waking movement, his anguish as he admits to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) that he has been unfaithful to her.
Bradford Young has been widely acknowledged for his beautiful cinematographic work on the film. One great example of his wonderful lighting work occurs in the jail cell as King is talking with Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo). King’s face is nearly obscured in darkness as he expresses his exhaustion with the work, and then as Ralph quotes scripture at him to buoy his spirits, the light brightens to cast a beatific glow on King’s face, only to fade back into shadow as they laugh-so-they-don’t-cry that the cell is probably bugged. Young’s and DuVernay’s work in the Bloody Sunday scenes can only be described as beautiful. Beautiful lighting, framing, and pacing highlight the ugliness and horror of the white state troopers chasing, beating, pummeling, and even whipping the black activists.
Selma came out in 2014, not long after the decision by a grand jury not to indict police officers in the murder of Michael Brown, and the resulting demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. There’s no way not to draw parallels. DuVernay and Paul Webb’s script draws those parallels clearly in an early scene, when King lays out for LBJ why voting rights cannot wait: black people are subject to violence every day in this country, and they cannot get justice for it because the law enforcement is white and the juries are white. They cannot get justice because they cannot be on juries if they are not registered to vote, and they cannot change governments that turn a blind eye if they cannot vote. In this way, as in so many others, not enough has changed. Police officers don’t get charged, let alone convicted, for the murders they commit against black people. The infamous Supreme Court decision of 2013 that rolled back key provisions of the very Voting Rights Act under discussion hangs over the film. King knows how much is at stake, and with the advantage of hindsight, we can see how right he was.
This movie depicting events from 50 years ago achieves the near impossible: it makes those events seem urgent and raw rather than safely tucked away in a history textbook, and it makes those events vividly relevant to the mighty struggle going on today.