(Dir. Ava DuVernay, United States, 2014)
From its opening sequence onward, Ava DuVernay’s impressive Selma is clearly concerned with people, not merely romanticized legends or one-dimensional fixtures of history books. This first of biopics on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. begins, not with the great orator before a sea of listeners delivering a famously rousing speech – as one might expect – but in front of a mirror rehearsing some speech in the privacy of his own home. It’s a startling humane introduction to this most revered of Americans. Staring at his reflection blankly, he abruptly ends this rehearsal with a defeated, “that’s not right.” No, he’s not referring to his words but rather the ascot adorning his neck. DuVernay’s intentions are difficult to miss; the great Dr. King (played convincingly if not thrillingly by David Oyelowo) was first and foremost a man, a husband, and a father before serving as the face of one of 20th century America’s most crucial movements. King shares a tender moment with his supportive wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) enclosed in the intimate, safe haven of their bedroom before DuVernay cuts to a scene of the MLK we most easily recognize now – the man receiving his Nobel Peace prize.
Though DuVernay captures the spirit and essential details of the Civil Rights era between 1963 and 1965 throughout her film’s narrative, she never abandons this welcome grounding of King as man over myth. She certainly doesn’t shy away from documenting the reverend’s grander moments – seen delivering inspiring speeches, standing up to a stubborn LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), and marching alongside fellow protesters across the bridge of the titular Alabama city – but she spends nearly equal time with King behind closed doors exposing his doubts, fearing for his friends’ and family’s lives, and weighing his leadership of the SCLC with the potential unraveling of his fragile marriage. It’s a remarkably humanizing portrait of both the man and the movement.
The power of DuVernay’s film is only intensified by her decision to resist immortalizing King’s entire life and career by focusing on a rather brief period of time and one major event in a series of many that marked the Civil Rights movement. In this regard, it seems she’s taken a cue from Spielberg’s similarly structured demythologized portrait of America’s 16th president in Lincoln. This pair of historical biopics breathes new life into an otherwise drowning and overstuffed sub-genre of cinema. It’s an added bonus that Selma is also so artfully composed shedding light on the talents of a newer voice on the scene – always a welcome trend in the face of perennial favorites consistently landing on year-end top ten lists.
Crucially, Selma earns its place amongst the typically tiring year-end discussion, not merely because of its impossible to ignore capital “I” importance, but because of the exciting and commendable accomplishment that is DuVernay’s filmmaking. The film boasts a fitting (and thankfully not distracting) lightly sepia-toned color scheme giving its images an appropriately era-specific look. DuVernay also demonstrates her ability to wield perfectly timed musical cues, exquisitely frame a scene, and garner solid performances from a talented cast of characters. For all of the above, look no further than the staging of the Bloody Sunday sequence; one that incorporates each of DuVernay’s achievements of the film as a whole – notably cleverly narrated by a reporter and highlighting violent tragedy without exploiting it. Paul Webb’s script deserves mention as well for its rich dialogue (not a given seeing as many period pieces flounder in this regard) and incredibly eloquent and on-point speeches written specifically for the film.
If there were a downside to DuVernay’s film, it would be a minor slip into over-sentimentality in the film’s second half. She uses music so effectively at times, but nearing the end, she unfortunately relies on emotive strings or sparse piano keystrokes to underscore emotionally cued interactions between King and various others – most regrettably in a late-film car ride between King and young activist John Lewis (Stephan James). The film does occasionally fall back on some of the traditional biopic’s lesser qualities, but mostly DuVernay navigates these with grace and avoids gooey schlock with her aforementioned refusal to mythologize her subject.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that Selma would have likely made waves in any year of release, but to cap off a year of seemingly regressive attitudes toward black men in America especially – though people of color in general – DuVernay’s film registers all the more timely. Lest we as Americans forget what it takes to affect positive change in this nation – black and white together, linking arms in defiance of unshakable injustice – Selma is a reminder that we are all the future no matter the color of our skin, the amount of money in our pockets, or the place and circumstance of our birth. DuVernay poignantly captures this by sidestepping villainizing white America, and yet filtering this story through a decidedly black perspective. It’s more than refreshing to now have a film – and a very good one at that – about Civil Rights with nary a white, savior-like protagonist in sight (The Help) and with the necessary vision of a black director at the helm.