Dir. Ava DuVernay. Starring David Oyelowo, Stephan James, Tom Wilkinson
It’s not enough to simply make a movie relevant by timing it so that it will align with certain current events. Selma landed like a haybale on a see-saw when it came out on Christmas 2014; not only did it land heavily, but it sprayed the surrounding area with the contents of what had been on the other end of the see-saw itself. I remember this vividly because I was teaching American literature at the time, and just as Ferguson had figured heavily into my August lessons, Selma did as Oscar season rolled around in January. Longtime Lyndon B. Johnson aide Joseph A. Califano’s op-ed in the Washington Post (we should not have been surprised at the reactionary character of that same page during 2015 and 2016…) begins “What’s the matter with Hollywood?” and ends with a call for people to, in fact, boycott the movie. From Califano’s perspective, the movie turned Johnson into a villain rather than making him one of its primary heroes. Mark Harris, then at Grantland (RIP), argued that Califano and the uproar he engendered may have cost Selma Oscar nominations. In the past couple of weeks, the protests at NFL games of something or other (for who can say if protests are in the vein of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality, a quid pro quo protest of Donald Trump, or simply a sign of solidarity like a flag avatar on Facebook after some tragedy) have engendered similar uproar. The thought that people might disrespect something, from the police officers who get away with what would be, in any other context, literal murder, to a long-dead president who escalated the Vietnam War so haplessly that he didn’t even run four years after winning an enormous electoral victory, is just too much for many viewers.
Selma considers what it means to protest, and more than that what it means to protest intelligently. On one day, protesting intelligently means marching towards an armed posse and taking unthinkable beatings. On another, it means walking up to those same men, watching them stand down, and then walking home again without even completing the stated march. There’s an interesting scene following the brutal bloodletting at the Pettus Bridge. Andrew Young (Andre Holland, secretly the best part of Moonlight) intercepts a couple of men trying to scrounge up as many guns as they can find in order to counterattack against the police officers and posse members. Even if you pick off a couple of them, Young says, they’ll come back and kill more of us. We have to choose our moments. It is the best (and to be honest, a rare) defense of non-violent protesting I’ve ever heard in a movie. Gandhi in Gandhi makes an appeal which I find more spiritually profound; he says that non-violent protest shows the oppressor how evil he is, even if, and maybe because, people die. But every death in Selma is treated with deepest regret. King (Oyelowo) takes them harder than anyone else. The murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Lakeith Stanfield) and James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) are great blows to him; he seems unable to separate the death toll from his own actions.
In Selma, there’s design to the protest. Even when King, who was not there for the first attempted crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, kneels and walks away, he seems to have his own intuitive reasons for turning around; nor will that intuition stop him from finally completing the fifty mile trek from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery. The greatest sin in protesting, per Selma, is to lose momentum towards meaningful results. In the early going, John Lewis (James) and James Forman (Trai Byers) of SNCC accuse King and his SCLC coterie of carpetbagging in Selma. SNCC, they inform them, has been working for two years to try to get people registered to vote. Where are the registered voters, then? is the response they get. The good intentions are important, and the hard work is important, but the needle hasn’t moved. Forman is a little bitter about it, saying that King is as much in this for himself as anyone else. Lewis is more pragmatic: you’re mad that we haven’t gotten enough done, Lewis tells him, and you’re mad that the people of Selma called him in because our results didn’t cut it.
What Lyndon Johnson (Wilkinson) would call pivoting to focus on his War on Poverty is labeled by King as abandoning African-Americans who need help immediately from the federal government. Johnson is obsessed by “the right time,” although the phrasing is typically much closer to “It’s not the right time.” By the end of the movie, one is convinced that Lyndon Johnson would have told Jesus Christ that it wasn’t “the right time” to die for the sins of mankind if it had been inconvenient for Johnson. Whether or not this aligns with the historical LBJ is more or less unimportant, I think, for a few reasons. First of all, this is a movie, and as always, it does not have to represent the source material with total accuracy. More interestingly, the movie uses Johnson, and sometimes his counsel Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi), to stand in for a host of well-meaning white Americans. We sympathize, they say in more wonkish terms, but do your protest differently or wait on making people uncomfortable. King reads those suggestions for what they are: he knows Johnson wants him to surrender his command, even if Johnson himself doesn’t even know it and would deny it fiercely if someone told him that. Johnson is not the villain of the movie, and to say he is to evince a serious illiteracy. He’s not one of the guys with the Confederate flags or the bullwhips or the clubs or the n-word in his mouth. He does not murder a black man in front of his father and mother, nor does he beat a minister to death with his bare hands. Those are the villains in this picture; Johnson is merely not the hero.
Selma is not a biopic – no movie that omits its leading historical figure from its most powerful moment is a biopic – and it begins with the way Oyelowo acts King. From an NPR interview with DuVernay:
We just walked away from anything that felt very, very close to King. It was intentional. There was no mimicry that was ever going to happen. That was our first order of business…We really focused on the spirit of him. David doesn’t look like King, he doesn’t sound like King — but he kind of looks and sounds like King, know what I mean? It starts to be in there somewhere.
It’s true. As people like to point out, this is the first major movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. ever made in this country, and the man playing him does not really look like the newsreels, and his voice does not shudder as it does during the real man’s “I Have a Dream” or “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speeches. (He also continues the amusing and slightly informative trend of importing British actors to play American legends, as Daniel Day-Lewis did in Lincoln.) Oyelowo gives a strong performance despite not being a King clone, because the role doesn’t ask him to play a god. In his first scene, he is afraid that his ascot makes him look too hoity-toity. His relationship with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is in bad shape, which the FBI takes advantage of. In fact, the reason he is not in Selma for the Pettus Bridge is because he’s staying home, trying to patch up his marriage. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) is in this movie for a hot minute, and his presence reminded me of what the FBI had to say about his sex life in his own biopic: “Compared to King, this guy’s a monk.” King does not reek of holiness at all times. He is occasionally bitter, sometimes defenseless, and more than once appears to be doing the wrong thing entirely. Despite all of that, DuVernay and Oyelowo imbue him with enough power to make it clear that even if he is flawed, he is the right man for the job. DuVernay frequently shoots him from below, especially while he’s speaking in front of a crowd, and usually from some distance; there’s no question that the camera believes that he is not like other men. Oyelowo, for his part, is deeply expressive in personal moments. With Johnson in the Oval Office, King is one man; speaking to his wife from the other side of prison bars, he looks and sounds quite another.
He gets a significant assist from the ensemble cast, which is both huge and marvelous. Ejogo plays a woman who knows her husband as a man and not a saint. Colman Domingo, Andre Holland, and several other men playing SCLC folks could each have carried this movie by themselves if needed. Special attention should be meted out to Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, who is probably the gruffest SCLC gentleman but, as the man who drew the short straw and marched out on the bridge, plays the scene with a powerful restrained horror. He and James are the glue in one of the most powerful acts of a film that I’ve seen in some times; there is an epic quality to the Pettus Bridge which Williams and Lewis anchor us to. One cannot look away from the sight of regular people being beaten to a pulp with nightsticks; if there is a historical accuracy which DuVernay means to tie us to, it’s that one.