Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, opens with two iconic and important events of the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement. The first is triumphant; Martin Luther King Jr. is in Norway accepting his Nobel Peace Prize. As he begins his speech, the movie cuts to a small group of children walking down a staircase talking about Coretta Scott King, her hair and how pretty they think it is. A bomb goes off killing them. It’s the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which white supremacist terrorists kill four young girls. It’s a heartbreaking and sobering scene and the fact that it happens when it does in the course of the movie reminds us that what we are about to watch, while triumphant, is also brutal and heartbreaking.
Selma is not the story of King, it is not a biographical film, but rather it is a story of Selma; of its people and the events that happened there that led to the marches from Selma to Montgomery. While it definitely revolves around King, the film manages to zoom out enough to bring into focus a host of other stories and people that were active in and around Selma. It’s a great film that manages to capture a broad feel and look at what happened without ever losing focus on the story it’s telling.
Much of the story involves the men and women get ready for their protest; they practice, collect supplies and get as ready as they possibly can for the day when they walk out to get beaten and maybe killed by cops. It’s a hard thing to do and the movie conveys something about non-violent protesting that most people miss; it’s not passive. In some ways it’s much more aggressive and confrontational then meeting violence with more violence. In the movie for example, the marchers walk across the bridge directly at the armed and angry cops. It’s as direct and aggressive as if they were armed. The only difference is that when the cops finally attack, they must flee. These scenes especially are incredibly well shot and orchestrated. They show that the chaos, the violence and brutality are as bad as any warzone could be. People die and people are left with real scars that last a lifetime (the real life John Lewis, one of the leaders of SNNK, has scars on his head to this day). It’s shocking and powerful to sit in a theatre and watch this, knowing that it happened in this country not that long ago. The bravery that the marchers had is inspiring. The whole sequence for that first bloody march is remarkable. It builds and feels so triumphant until it all comes crashing down in a story of billy clubs and tear gas.
King is a mythical creature in American lore; it’s easy to look back at what he did and forget that he was as human as anybody, as flawed and prone to self-doubt as we mere mortals. But he was, and the movie does an excellent job of showing that. In part the story and moments the movie chooses to show us display his humanity, but it equally comes from the acting job of David Oyelowo, who really shines in this movie. The actor, who in real life looks almost nothing like King, transforms both his physical self and his voice to match King. He doesn’t do it perfectly, nobody could, but it comes off so well and I think it really captures the spirit of King. At every step of the journey, I believe this man to be King.
In an interesting and weird development, King’s speeches were licensed to another production company, so DuVurnay had to write new speeches. On the one hand, it’s baffling that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech’s can even be licensed but on the other it allows the movie and Oyelowo craft speeches that capture King’s style and beliefs but are completely built for this particular movie. It allows for all the conversations, all the oratory, to remain cohesive and stylistically coherent.
History, after the fact, appears neat and tidy for many Americans in their history books or on the abominable History Channel. But real history, the deeds and decisions that get forgotten and compressed into a handful of paragraphs, are dirty, error filled and made by people for a variety of reasons. The single best thing about this movie, for me, was that it got tactical. It shows why decisions were made and for what reasons. Selma wasn’t chosen because of some romantic or idealist notion; it was chosen because it fit the criteria that King and his organization had in mind. Local groups had laid groundwork that King co-opted and turned to his own use. And that kind of action causes friction and salty wounds. There is a great scene at the beginning of the movie where King’s lieutenants are trying to get the leaders of SNCC to come around their ideas; they bully and push the younger men until King walks in, smooth and even keeled as can be. He plays the good cop role and gets what he and his people want. In another movie about another story, that’s the scene where the new crime boss finally takes control of some new part of town. And while the motivations and desires are obviously different, it still feels that way even in this movie. Later in the movie we see the more experienced men and women teaching the local volunteers what to expect, what will come their way. They prep them the violence that is coming their way. It shows the human side of this event and it’s great.
If one were to take lessons of the more practical flavor from this movie, it would have to be how King and his people engage both their opponents and the media. King uses the media, he makes sure that they are around so that their camera’s and notepads are ready to record whatever happens next. This both protects them to a certain degree, but it also reveals how shameful their enemies act when they finally lose control. The power of the Selma march is that the brutal attacks on the first attempt were captured on film. Men and women from across the nation watched as uniformed police assault and brutalize men and women who are peacefully protesting. It galvanized the nation and helped make the Selma Marches so effective and important. Seeing King and his crew as skilled operators is a very cool and different take on things that I don’t think we get a lot of. To often our hero’s and their struggles just sit in our heads, oversimplified and in black and white. This movie moves the viewer past that and into a closer understanding of what really happened.
Besides maybe using strong-armed tactics, King is flawed as a man. The life he has chosen is one that tears at his family and especially his marriage. They are in constant danger, they can’t buy a house and King is not home as much as he should be. The movie takes the time to show that cost in big and small ways, such as when King tries to take the garbage out but doesn’t know where the bags are; it even mentions the fact that he was not faithful to her. These dark and more human moments don’t besmirch King. Just like in American Sniper (see my review over here), seeing the flaws of our hero allows us to admire them more, to see their humanity and their greatness all at once. Carmen Ejogo doesn’t get as much screen time as Oyelowo, but she shines as women who definitely loves and believes in husband, but manages to balance that with her own concerns for him, herself and their family. She has a small and quick scene with Malcolm X that displays both her intelligence and power in the Civil Rights Movement that I did not expect but rather enjoyed.
Similarly to American Sniper, Selma has garnered some controversy. I didn’t think that American Sniper deserved much of its controversy and I think this movie deserves even less. Yes, LBJ is shown to be rather uncooperative toward King; he wants King to wait a while before making another big push about civil rights (since LBJ just got the Civil Rights Act passed) but I don’t think that paints him such a bad light as some do. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do things differently than King; plenty of people disagreed with him, that doesn’t make them the enemy, and I don’t think it does here with LBJ either. The only thing I really didn’t like is a scene he has with Hoover in which it’s implied that he sends Hoover after King. This did happen, but it was actually Robert Kennedy who unleashed Hoover, not LBJ. But like I said before, this movie is not about LBJ. There is a great LBJ movie out there, the man was fascinating and actually did do great good when it comes to civil rights, but this is not that movie. You can’t tell everything in a story; when you tell everything, you tell nothing. The choices this movie makes are almost as important as the story it tells.
As I said, this movie is about Selma, the city and the event, and not King per se and because of that fact, it’s a deeply triumphant movie. The final scenes of the movie show real life footage from the march, which was highly successful and important, and King giving a moving and victorious speech at the state capital instead of ending on his tragic death, as a more biographical film would have to. It’s a powerful and inspiring way to end the film. They won. We, as Americans, won. We rose up against the very worst of our nature and made our country a better place. Selma is a powerful film that truly deserves and needs to be seen.
Everybody should go here for some quick videos about the real events at Selma.
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