The specter of death haunts Selma, and not just because it is a film about Martin Luther King Jr. It is about the grim reality that at any time, someone somewhere is dying unjustly. That's why director Ava DuVernay starts her film by crosscutting between King (David Oyewolo in an uncanny likeness) and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, luminous), preparing for his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance, and a scene of four little girls walking in a church. Viewers with even an ounce of historical knowhow will know what's coming, but the sudden impact of the explosion that kills those girls is nevertheless devastating. DuVernay cuts to a brief montage of little bodies in white dresses being flung horizontally in shadowy, elegiac slow motion. Her point is that for every victory achieved by people like King and his wife, there was an enormous cost associated with it, and that both events carry equal weight in the eyes of history.
To call Selma ambitious is an understatement. It is only DuVernay's second feature film, yet it is directed with the skill of a veteran. Each scene carries with it immense, deliberate heft, as if to cajole the viewer into the sort of solemn meditative state with which DuVernay treats her subject: King's effort to secure equal voting rights for black people in 1965. It takes a filmmaker of considerable talent, for example, to prevent a superstar like Oprah Winfrey from undermining the movement and intent of a scene. Winfrey (who produces as well) plays Annie Lee Cooper, a quiet, grave woman who defiantly attempts to register to vote. She manages to preserve her dignity even as a repulsive, sneering white registrar forces her to recite the Preamble, state the number of congressional judges in the state of Alabama, and then to recall each of their sixty seven names. DuVernay places the camera such that Cooper appears in close-up profile, preventing us from getting inside her head, much in the same way that the registrar is shut out from getting under her skin. It's a delicate scene that could have been ginned up with music and portentous dialogue. Instead, it proceeds as the historical event likely did: Cooper staved off humiliation by keeping her temper and wisely leaving before getting herself into trouble. What other choice would this woman have?
That question is the crux of the story of Selma. Due to their inability to register to vote in the South, black people had utterly no power over their own lives. Because voter registration is required to serve on a jury, black people had no presence in the court, either, forcing them to continue to live under the sway of frequently racist white people. DuVernay also presents an irritable, profane version of Lydon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is played as sympathetic to King's cause, yet wary of the increased trouble for his administration that such a cause will pose for him. There has been controversy about Johnson's portrayal, in terms of his brash, combative demeanor toward King, something that I didn't find particularly surprising or worthy of note. The President of the United States is an extremely demanding and stressful job, one that coerces its holder to make difficult, world-shaping decisions on a daily basis. Is it really so unacceptable to think that LBJ might have been a dick sometimes?
One of the fine lines that Selma walks is the idea that King could have a tendency to be less than perfect himself. DuVernay constantly reinforces the image of King, the man, as opposed to King, the icon, a technique that works well in the film's favor, as well as with Oyewolo's down-to-earth performance. We see him eating, shaving, playing with his children. He sits in a cell in jail, looking about as miserable as you'd expect him to. That scene ends with him joking to a friend, "This cell's probably bugged." One of the most wrenching, beautifully acted scenes in the film is between King and Coretta, who receive an unsavory voice message with the sounds of a man and woman having sex--the man is likely King. Coretta asks him simply if he loves anyone else. A pregnant, endless pause ensues, with King finally mumbling, "No." We'll never know for sure if that wasn't exactly a lie, but it is generally accepted that King messed around being his wife's back. DuVernay treats the subject firmly, yet also sensitively. The point of the film isn't to tear down King's image, but to give it flesh and blood.
Given that DuVernay is clearly not satisfied with hero worship, she fleshes out the cast with a wide array of character actors and familiar faces, include Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Wendell Pierce (The Wire), and the rapper, Common, who co-wrote the film's theme song, "Glory," with John Legend. Tim Roth appears as George Wallace, the unabashedly racist and regressive governor of Alabama, who imposed violent resistance against King's non-violent protest in the form of an unhinged sheriff (Stan Houston). Most of these actors are there because of their presence, and less because they were given complete characters to embody. No one does this better than Keith Stanfield, the astoundingly talented actor we saw in 2013's Short Term 12. He plays Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose senseless death by police shooting echoes the ongoing violence that continues today.
DuVernay emphasizes the physical abuse that went into nonviolent resistance. My viewing partner likened it to the portrayal of Louis Zamperini's never-ending suffering in Unbroken, which is a salient point. But DuVernay has more of a clear intent behind the displays of brutality, compared to Angelina Jolie's vaguely martyr-like depiction of Zamperini. Selma is a reminder to reconsider that the Civil Rights Movement wasn't just a series of speeches and genial cooperation between King and the President. We may never see any fire hoses in the film, but it is those images that DuVernay evokes as we watch helpless, sometimes elderly people endure severe beatings as a symbolic gesture. Selma is a salve against reductive, revisionist films like The Help, which underplays the role of black people in the Movement by focusing on a well-to-do white woman, intentionally or not. Selma is a sprawling, angry wake-up call that pulls no punches and avoids sentimentality at almost every turn. It is both important on its own, historical terms, as well as an important piece of filmmaking.