Selma arrives on these shores having already attracted significant criticism in the wake of its US release (mainly regarding the historical accuracy – or rather inaccuracy – of some important elements of Paul Webb’s screenplay) and also having been controversially snubbed in several of the high profile Academy Award and BAFTA categories. Ava DuVernay’s film, an outside bet for Best Picture in the upcoming Oscars, details the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr, who is played with consummate skill by the British actor David Oyelowo. It’s a stirring, emotional dramatisation of this recent and shocking period of American history, and Webb and DuVernay’s joint examination of civil rights, discrimination and prejudice has been hailed for its timeliness, given that the film highlights police violence and the subsequent lack of culpability in the 1960s; President Obama’s administration has, of course, recently been contending with riots in the Midwest and demonstrations elsewhere resulting from similar ongoing problems with law enforcement agencies today.
Oyelowo, arguably, is the person involved who has been most wronged by the Academy’s voting, though it’s worth iterating that such trivialities detract from, and really pale into insignificance when compared with, the subject matter of this film. His magnificent performance is the bedrock of Selma, and he is entirely believable whether depicting King’s struggle with private doubts and concerns, his discussions about them with family and advisors, his rousing, defiant public speeches or his involvement in a series of strong-willed showdowns with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Oyelowo captures the style and manner of King’s orations although the real speeches – which incorporated several lines that have become iconic in the ensuing years – are not used here; King’s estate had already licensed them to a different studio, reportedly to be used in an as-yet-untitled Steven Spielberg project. Unfortunately no agreement could be reached, and DuVernay’s unenviable task of re-writing them has been carried out with considerable skill, keeping the message and the emotional punch intact. The words certainly feed Oyelowo’s showreel moments, which are numerous and powerful, but just as impressive is the actor’s ability to bring a man to life on screen, rather than a refuelling of a myth. As the review for Selma in Sight & Sound magazine pointed out last month, there have been surprisingly few depictions of King on the big screen to date, and for decades the general perception in the media has been of a Gandhi-esque figure, or simply of a more appealing alternative to Malcolm X (an idea briefly riffed on in Selma). One of the main achievements of DuVernay’s film, and of Oyelowo’s performance, is the creation of a credible suggestion of the person behind the speeches and the soundbites: a man not necessarily racked with self-doubt, but certainly thoughtful, occasionally uncertain and often concerned about the effects of his decisions and infidelities.
In keeping with this, when first see King, uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he is clearly more concerned with the fight looming on the horizon as well as the way in which his appearance in Oslo will be perceived by his peers. At his side is his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who spends most of the film in a largely supportive role to her husband that arguably diminishes her own real life achievements. The next scene, deliberately emphasising the irrelevance of the Prize at this juncture, shows the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, which took place a year earlier. Then we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) being denied the right to vote in Selma, a key factor in the identification of the town by King’s SCLC as the ideal battleground to draw attention to their cause.
The film’s moving and harrowing scenes cover the violent incidents that subsequently occurred in and around Selma, first showing King and the SCLC marching with local residents to the courthouse to register to vote, where a confrontation results in numerous arrests. A night march ends in tragedy when police officers, supposedly under orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, struggling throughout), violently beat the protesting, peaceful crowd and the young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is murdered. Then the marches from Selma to the state capitol Montgomery take place: for the first King is advised not to attend, and more state trooper brutality occurs, this time on the Edmund Pettus Bridge under the watchful gaze of the media. For the second the marchers are joined by white Americans for the first time, many from different religious denominations and most spurred into action by the scenes they have witnessed on TV as much as King’s plea for help. Wallace is unmoved, and though the troopers offer a way through, King believes it to be a trap and turns around; a third march is needed.
The blot on the copybook of this otherwise excellent film is that the relationship between King and Johnson is warped for dramatic effect (this is a drama, admittedly, but it is otherwise apparently truthful), and their confrontations are designed to sit a little too conveniently next to those mentioned above; the two men do not enter into brutal clashes, of course, but their conversations are mini-conflicts, with Johnson clearly portrayed as an obstructer, and one of the villains of the piece. Critics of Selma have been dismayed that Johnson only acts when public pressure becomes so great his only option is to overrule the defiant Wallace, something the character does with reluctance. This fictional version of the President is more concerned with his own legacy, and how he will be perceived 20 years later, rather than the real issue at hand. Wilkinson – who captures a powerful, confident and authoritative figure well enough – is even required to spit ‘Get me J. Edgar Hoover’ down into a telephone receiver at one point, which is a ludicrous return to the ‘Get me the Pentagon!’ and ‘Get me the President!’ chomping of movie days of yore. (Hoover, incidentally, is the far more obvious choice for villain, if such a role must be occupied. He is largely a background figure here, played by Dylan Baker, though his obsession with King’s private life and movements is constantly referred to by DuVernay, who flashes up short, de-classified FBI status reports on screen, a device that I found suddenly jolted me ‘out’ of the film.)
The depiction of Johnson has riled so many because, in reality, this particular President had a commitment to social justice that has rarely been matched before or after by any occupant of the Oval Office. Serving during a period of intense change, which incorporated the start of the Vietnam War, race riots and the space race, his supporters have quickly pointed out that he was the first American leader in nearly 100 years to arrest and prosecute members of the Ku Klux Klan, following the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and was apparently keen to work with King in enacting the Voting Rights Act, identifying it as a priority when he came into office.
Unfortunately the furore has detracted attention away from the film’s main character to a certain degree. While the media is partly responsible for this disappointing turn of events, which has seen significant column inches spent on the examination of a portrait of a Caucasian leader, DuVernay and Webb don’t have to search too far if they’re looking to apportion the rest of the blame. It is something they could have avoided.
There are some choices made that I’m not too keen on, though my usual dislike of modern songs during or at the end of period films didn’t stop me from at least appreciating the relevance of ‘Glory’, the main theme by John Legend and Common (who also appears in the film as James Bevel), even if the song itself is god awful. However I do feel a certain ambivalence toward the slow-mo used during several of the beatings and killings that occur in the film; some of it has been widely praised, such as the violent, smoky scene on the bridge during the first march, but for me DuVernay’s decision to add a touch of visual flash is unnecessary and ostentatious. I wonder whether showing these scenes in real-time would be more in-keeping with the look of the rest of the film, while perhaps also emphasising the experience of those watching live on TV in 1965.
Despite a few problematic elements Selma demands admiration as a confident piece that is successful in identifying and detailing the key moments in this long struggle, and as a study of Martin Luther King it is indeed every bit as fascinating as you would expect it to be. With one or two exceptions the supporting performances are good – I haven’t mentioned him above but Henry Sanders stands out as Cager Lee, the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson – but the film’s clear highlight is the performance of Oyelowo. I don’t want to go on too much about the whole Oscar thing, as it’s all been said elsewhere, but how this hasn’t been identified as one of the five best performances of the year is a mystery to me. As great as Keaton is, as great as Redmayne is, as good as all the others are … this would be my Best Actor winner, for what it’s worth.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Keith Stanfield, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudsen, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Martin Sheen
Running Time: 127 minutes