Selma

February 14, 2015
David Oyelowo in 'Selma' (2014)
David Oyelowo in 'Selma' (2014)

Selma would be a powerful film even without the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Arriving hard on the heels of that incident, this story of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement takes on a relevance that no member of the audience can ignore. It seems that the racialist attitudes that divided the United States in the 1960s are still thriving today.

Ava DuVernay’s film has been gathering extravagant plaudits, but one mustn’t go along expecting to be picked up and carried by this story. Selma is a political science lesson that tries to balance the big picture of the battle for Civil Rights with the small interpersonal tensions and conflicts that went on inside the movement. This is a delicate juggling act, as we move from King arguing with President Johnson in the Oval Office, to sitting at his kitchen table at home being grilled by his wife.

For every big public scene there is good deal of discussion and soul-searching. This feels realistic in a way Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), for instance, did not always manage – or even attempt. Yet the difference between DuVernay and a filmmaker such as Spielberg or Clint Eastwood – whose American Sniper has incredible narrative thrust and deep, political ambiguity – is her willingness not to cut corners. Selma gives us the nitty-gritty of the Civil Rights movement, even if it occasionally means we are anchored in a room while strategies are argued out.

This has the effect of diffusing the usual Hollywood concentration on the singular hero, exposing the messy, provisional nature of the political process in which high ideals have to jostle with more pragmatic considerations.

In this film, King and his colleagues have right on their side, but President Johnson has the ultimate power and is conscious of the anger that any intervention will draw from white voters in the south.

The film begins with three disparate scenes that create a composite picture of the state of Civil Rights in 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is shown accepting the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden. Four little girls are killed by an explosion as they walk into a church in Birmingham, Alabama. A middle aged black woman named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), makes her fourth attempt to register to vote, only to be knocked back by a ridiculous knowledge test.

The right to vote is the issue upon which King and his followers will make their stand. Although this right is enshrined in American law, up to this point it has been virtually impossible for African-Americans to get onto the electoral rolls due to political and bureaucratic obstruction, and various forms of intimidation.

The town of Selma, Alabama, is chosen as a protest site, having a 50 percent black population with scarcely a vote among them. The plan is to march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, some fifty miles away. There will be three attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which leads out of town, as the forces of law and order line up to prevent the march.

This is the basic plot, but the substance of Selma lies in-between the marches, as King’s program of non-violent resistance is met with extraordinary brutality from a local population that subscribes to an ethic of white supremacy with the conviction of religious fanatics. The violence is not limited to the attack launched on unarmed civilians at the first attempt to cross the bridge, it is promulgated by anonymous police and white vigilantes on the blacks and their pale-skinned supporters.

The assault on the marchers is a edgy, dramatic piece of cinema, given special force by the knowledge that the protesters will not fight back. It’s a form of martyrdom, as participants know they run the risk of being assaulted and perhaps killed. These scenes are captured by news cameras and sent around the world in an early example of the power of the media as a tool to expose injustice. Today it would be social media that led the way.

Selma features strong performances from some unlikely actors, notably Englishmen, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace. This still represents an eccentric approach to casting.

Another Englishman, David Oyelowo, seems right at home playing Martin Luther King. It’s an understated performance that allows King to speak in a normal voice, only launching into his famous cadences when making a public address. In lesser hands, one imagines a King who spends the entire film preaching to friends and family. Oyelowo’s version is more convincing, being flawed and unsure of himself. The real King was a notorious philanderer, and DuVernay deals with this aspect of his character in a brief, tense confrontation with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

The hub of the cast is an exclusive club of experienced African-Amercan actors who have spent most of their careers playing bit parts and supporting roles. Figures such as Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo and Omar Dorsey seem completely natural in the roles of King’s lieutenants, perhaps because they retain vivid memories of the Civil Rights movement.

Although it has an epic quality, Selma covers only a few weeks of an extensive campaign. Just how extensive it’s almost impossible to say, as it seems to be an ongoing proposition.

Selma
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey, Omar J. Dorsey, Colman Domingo
USA/UK, rated M, 128 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th February, 2015.