Long after other Best Picture nominees of 2014 have been forgotten, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will still be watched, appreciated and talked about. That’s not just because of the enduring importance of the subject matter, or the fact that Selma got there first. The fact that a half century elapsed before the first big-screen dramatic feature film with King as the protagonist (and that it was ultimately spearheaded by mostly British filmmakers, including screenwriter Paul Webb and Oyelowo) is striking, but the first film on an important subject isn’t always worthy of its historical significance. Selma is.
It is the great achievement of Selma not only to liberate possibly the most iconic American figure of the 20th century from his own mythology, but also to capture a lively sense of the civil rights movement as a cause of many players with varying points of view. Selma also evokes a larger cultural milieu in which civil rights weren’t the only issue on the table, victory was by no means assured, and the best means of achieving victory were not at all clear.
The tactic of nonviolence has been sanctified by hagiography, a sort of secular parallel to the unresisting suffering of Jesus and the saints. Selma presents it as a deliberate provocation, a bid to provoke a crisis forcing the nation to face up to its problems — a tactic that failed in places like Albany, where authorities could not be provoked into making mistakes, but worked like gangbusters in places like Birmingham and Selma.
King himself, too, has been sanctified by hagiography. Selma takes the opposite approach from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which deliberately embraced the 16th president’s iconic status, even introducing him seated on a dais conversing with a pair of black soldiers (one of whom is played by Oyelowo!), looking like he’s posing for his image in the Lincoln Memorial. In Selma we meet King in a hotel room in Oslo fumbling like Mr. Darling in Peter Pan with a necktie (or rather ascot) which Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), like Mrs. Darling, ties for him. He is rehearsing the speech he will give at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony; later we will see him lying on a bed with notes for a speech he will give the following day. (Does Spielberg’s Lincoln ever show the great man writing or rehearsing a speech?)
King is seen as a man with flaws and weaknesses, a man who at times lets down the people closest to him. A painful private moment between King and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) underscores the emotional fallout of King’s infidelities — and, in the movie’s telling, it is because of this domestic turmoil, aggravated by harassment by the FBI, that King is not present for the first Selma march on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Frustratingly, the film’s humanization of King has been somewhat overlooked amid often overblown concerns over the depiction of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). The dramatization of tension between King and Johnson, not over goals but over tactics and timing, has been mischaracterized; critics have wrongly accused the film of making Johnson the “villain” or “antagonist,” rather than a not entirely reliable ally with a different list of priorities.
The film is shrewdly structured to cover a definite period of just a few months in Dr. King’s life, from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December 1964 to passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. Still, even in the triumphant final montage there are hints that the struggle against racism was far from over, and the opening words of the Oscar-winning song “Glory” over the end credits (“One day, when the glory comes…”) is a somber reminder that we aren’t there yet.
Very few historical films so successfully deconstruct the Great Man view of history while nevertheless offering a credible portrait of a leader who was, in fact, a great man.
If an actor in a faith-based indie like Son of God told you he felt God had told him he was meant to play the role in question, you might not bat an eye. It’s more striking to hear such a thing from the star of a $20-million Hollywood film like the civil-rights drama Selma.
Selma achieves something few historical films do: It captures a sense of events unfolding in the present tense, in a political and cultural climate as complex, multifaceted and undetermined as the times we live in.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.