SELMA (Dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014)
Despite the accusations of inaccuracies, Ava DuVernay’s SELMA is the only 2014 film based on true events that ought to be mandatory viewing. As in, kids should be dragged to it, it should be shown in schools, etc.
SELMA’s stirring depiction of one of the most important episodes in civil rights history, the civil rights protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, provides a profoundly powerful lesson about how people can pull together to rise above oppression.
It’s a timeless lesson, especially given the similarities to the protests and riots that have resulted from the fatal shooting of 18-year old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, that hammers home philosopher and cultural critic George Santayana’s famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Although the bulk of the film concerns the campaign to secure equal voting rights in 1965, SELMA begins with a few scenes set in the years leading up to that period.
First, we see Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The legendary civil rights leader’s wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) helps him with his tie in this backstage glimpse which shows him as a vulnerable, nervous man, not an unflappable icon.
Then, first-time screenwriter Paul Webb’s narrative takes us back to 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. Even if you know your history, the scene is a shocking sight; one that won’t soon fade from memory.
Those who don’t know their history may be confused by the chronology, but from this point on – that is, after King’s meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office in December, 1965 – the film focuses on the tumultuous three-month movement in early ’65.
Wilkinson’s LBJ tells Oyelow’s MLK Jr. that because of a hundred other problems – Vietnam, poverty, Medicare, immigration reform, etc. - “This voting thing is just going to have to wait.”
Nonplussed, MLK Jr. travels to Selma to get the ball rolling with the help of of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which included such members as Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Reverend James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar Dorsey), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint).
Meanwhile, LBJ deals with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) who wants to discredit King, and becomes furious that Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) has vowed to stop the march.
A violent scuffle in Selma, in which Oprah Winfrey (one of the film's producers) as Annie Lee Cooper, a hospice nurse who had previously tried several times to register to vote, punches ultra racist Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), leads to King and many of his people getting arrested.
The violence escalates when state troopers attack activists on a night march, and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) gets shot and killed by one of the police.
But the most devastating incident of the entire movement, and one of the most searing sequences on film of this last year, is undoubtedly the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation, in which 600 marchers were attacked by Alabama police and angry posses who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.
The massacre as it intensely unfolds can be hard to watch, but Duvernay’s cut-aways to folks’ horrified reactions – most notably LBJ’s - as they watch it on grainy black and white television sets – got me so caught up in the outrage that is was impossible to look away.
SELMA gets so much right in its portrayal of the passion of the protesters in the face of the severe stakes involved, that the quibbles about its mischaracterization of LBJ’s motivations are seriously misplaced.
In real life, LBJ wasn’t as hesitant to introduce a voting rights bill as shown in the film, but the film hardly depicts him as a villain. Wilkinson (who like Oyellow is British) brings a stressed-out air to the role, something he’s used to great effect in a great many movies playing morally questionable characters, but here the notion is that he’s a politician first and foremost.
This can still be seen as a flaw in the film’s framework, as are a few moments that are wrapped in melodrama, but not one that takes away from the heart pounding impact of this excellent epic.
Oyelowo, a name that everybody should learn, is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his amazing performance as MLK. He brings a gravitas to King that I’ve not seen him muster before, particularly when compared to his role as the subversive son of THE BUTLER just last year. Oyelowo doesn’t really resemble King, but he successfully channels him in both the quiet, troubled moments behind the scenes, and the famous, powerfully moving speeches we’ve all heard throughout our lives.
Cinematographer Bradford Young is also certain to get award season action for greatly giving the imagery what he called in an interview a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.” (If Young isn’t nominated for an Oscar for this then his superb work in J.C. Chandor’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR will certainly get a nod).
The touching, timely SELMA is the best historical drama of 2014. It’s unfortunate that its story is still strongly such a necessary one to pass down, but even without recent events, it’s one that should be forever told.