Directed by Ava DuVernay
In theaters December 25
Does Selma, Ava DuVernay’s new movie about Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s attempt to win federal protection for the voting rights of southern blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, play it safe? No one’s biopic of a world historical figure, especially a legendary non-violent Negro assimilationist whose deification the entire doomed Republic seems to agree upon, will satisfy everyone. I cried while watching Selma, right around the time Keith Stanfield’s Jimmy Lee Johnson is murdered by a police officer while trying to defend his helpless father following a march the cops willfully and brutally ambushed.
Despite such an emotional reaction to the craftsmanship behind stalwart cinematographer Bradford Young’s crystalline images of life in the dying American apartheid, and that fixed deadness in Stanfield’s eyes, I’m still not sure if the movie played me. Hardened moviegoer that I am, I’m naturally suspicious of historical narratives that claim satisfying emotional truth from the messy ambiguities of the public record. But I’m willing to give Selma the benefit of many doubts.
Taking as its subject the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and the steps of the Alabama legislature, the film interweaves the story of King and his operatives with that of the political machinations at the Alabama State and White Houses in a way no previous attempt at dramatizing the Civil Rights Movement has had the gumption to do. King dramatizations have generally been relegated to TV in the past—Jeffrey Wright was terrific as King in Clark Johnson’s 2001 HBO movie Boycott, but he’s no match for David Oyelowo here. He’s more physically suited to play King, and although he doesn’t get the cadences of his speech quite as well, he has a better script at his service. Selma gives Oyelowo the room to play King as a man of grand ambitions and deep fears who embodied a kind of courageousness in big, public moments that stands in delicate contrast to the man who was making a mess of his marriage with trysts being taped by the FBI. His King, and by extension the movie that Oyelowo carries, has nuance to burn.
Obvious pitfalls are avoided in deft fashion by DuVernay, who won a directing prize at Sundance a few years ago. The cradle-to-grave ping-ponging narrative that sinks so many biopics has been jettisoned. Selma takes its time, unfolding with enough space to develop a lot of characters, and makes clear the grimness and gallows humor that men doing such important and physically dangerous organizing use to protect themselves from the horror of white terrorism.
Still, some will want to see more of the nationwide riots that had hemmed in the SCLC from the second half of ‘64 onward, forcing it to reckon with an increasingly furtive and recalcitrant black nationalist ethos, represented here in a single, oddly muted scene by a soft-spoken, weeks-fromdying, post-Mecca Malcolm X. Others will wonder if the movie goes far enough into the darker corners of King’s relationship with his wife (and many mistresses). Few history buffs will feel that Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ and Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover are quite depraved enough. And so on. But DuVernay has delivered an old-fashioned Hollywood movie about the Big American Issues that doesn’t feel phony, even if Oprah and Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen and Tim Roth (as George Wallace, of all people) are all along for the ride in full Historical Reverence mode. Selma threads many needles; that it won’t ruffle feathers, obvious parallels to today’s racial consternation be damned, shouldn’t be held against it, even if that’s what our vastly different and surprisingly similar moment in history demands.