Selma opens with a black screen and the rounded tones of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (David Oyelowo). But Dr. King isn’t giving a speech—he’s rehearsing, struggling with doubt before receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. His wife, Coretta Scott King, (Carmen Ejogo), tries to comfort him. Ejogo and Oyelowo portray the relationship with quick, subtle strokes; tension edges their mutual flirtation and support. It’s a smart, precise, and powerful scene. This becomes a pattern.
I (and, I bet, many others) learned too much about MLK and nonviolence from motivational posters and elementary school, happily swallowing a pre-chewed dream. Too much of this stuff and you might start to think that, alive today, King would walk on water and vote Republican. All too often, we saint the man, flatten the movement, and pat ourselves on the back. In this sense Selma is extraordinary, an exceptionally intelligent and passionate interrogation of nonviolence as well as the role of leadership figures. In a country of persistent racial injustice this movie will always be relevant—but no one can argue that it is particularly powerful now, with events such as the recent tragedy in Ferguson. Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb respect their topic and their audience, and thanks to them we have an urgent and necessary movie.
Part of the achievement of Selma is made possible by its disciplined scope. Avoiding the pitfalls of the greatest-hits biopic, the movie limits itself, with one or two exceptions, to the months between King’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize in October of 1964 and the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches of March of 1965. King and the core of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCSC) chose Selma, Alabama as their stage to protest the effective disenfranchisement of black people in the South—and the Selma campaign ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From its first scene Selma focuses on the stakes and the personal, logistical, and political mechanics of that campaign. Even given this tight scope, there is so much rich material here, enough for dozens of movies. There must have been a temptation to bring in cameos of other important figures from the era—a temptation, thankfully, given into only once with the very brief appearance of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch).
The movie works hard to show the stakes of voting and the costs of this right being withheld. Again and again, Selma ties voting to power and self-determination, and the lack of it to vulnerability and violence. In one speech early in the movie King denounces those “who would use their power to keep us away from the ballot box and keep us voiceless,” and black leaders who go on to attain elected office after the events of the movie are emphasized. And we are made to feel what powerlessness leads to. Violence in movies can be sanded and glossy—a placeholder for dialogue, or plot. Not so in Selma. We shouldn’t be surprised; it’s all in the history. But the portrayal of violence devastates nonetheless. Selma is not a tear jerker, it’s a movie that makes you cry.
DuVernay’s direction brings home the terror and brutality of racist violence. This is one of the ways Selma makes sure not to take nonviolent protest as a moral given in the face of injustice. Rather, the SCLC, its tactics, and its goals are bluntly laid out—and criticized from every quarter (Webb’s script does an excellent job of making these arguments organic and urgent). The nonviolence movement staked itself to concrete progress; responding to supposed criticism from Malcolm X, King angrily says, “Our movement has been the one that has moved the needle.” But top-down tactics of the SCLC and the admitted attempt to raise “white consciousness” raises hackles among the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (including an excellent Stephan James as John Lewis), who focus on the grass-roots raising of “black consciousness.” And the movie is honest about the appeal for whites and white politicians of nonviolent resistance compared to violent resistance. Selma treats nonviolent protest with bracing honesty: as a difficult choice, not an imposed expectation.
But it wouldn’t be right to say Selma is never in awe of the Civil Rights movement. On the contrary, DuVernay knows the awe that movement can inspire. At the right moments, especially in the final march scenes and in Dr. King’s speech on the steps of the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, we get the uplift and hope we need. The camera will zoom out and turn onto the united masses, or gaze up from ground level at a row of men in dark suits marching against helmeted police, and we feel the majesty of what these people did. Just as DuVernay can do terror, she can do glory. Oyelowo’s magnificent voice helps, no doubt—not a reproduction of King’s so much as a tribute to it.
A final word on the controversy stirring around the historical accuracy of Selma. Many have criticized its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. In the movie he plays the role of political power (to quote, “the consciousness of whichever white man who happens to be in the Oval Office”) that must be politically maneuvered by nonviolent protest and morally led by Martin Luther King.
Professor Peniel Joseph, of Tufts University, summed up this particular debate on NPR as being “part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized and shaped in large part by African-Americans... the real problem many critics have with this film is that it’s too black and too strong.” That seems exactly correct to me; in fact, the disproportionately negative response by some critics shows how an honest portrayal of King and his movement still has an ability to make people uncomfortable. It shows how far we still have to go before we reach “a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”