Selma opens with the face of Martin Luther King, Jr, and that very fact says as much about what Selma accomplishes, and how and why it accomplishes, as what King is doing. He’s struggling with an ascot, you see, grumbling to Coretta Scott King about how poorly it suits him as he rotely, almost monotonously runs through a few lines of a forthcoming address. Selma is about a human, not a legend. It’s about how humans become legends, and why too often remembering the legend does a disservice to a cause that needs human leadership and human effort. Selma wants us to understand what King did and why, not just to celebrate King, but to show us how its done. “King was human,” Selma says, “so you’re out of excuses.”
The ink has barely dried on the 1964 Civil Rights Act as newly-minted Nobel laureate Martin King (David Oyelowo) and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference realize that, absent a real right to vote, that legislation is just paper. Getting nothing but patronizing obstinacy from LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), they bring the fight to Selma, Alabama, a majority-black town fifty miles from the statehouse occupied by the practically all-powerful arch-white-supremacist George Wallace (Tim Roth). Their insistence on the right to peacefully march quickly escalates into a seismic event, bringing white hatred and white terrorism, both vigilance and state-directed (the difference becomes increasingly hard to see). It’s a political and legal crisis at every level of government, and the eyes of a nation shocked at the openly violent apartheid practiced in their own borders.
Selma is directed and shot by Ava DuVernay, with a grace and a canny eye for detail. Its long-lingering close-ups invest power and humanity in its performances. Its catch of hands on bannisters and shuffling feet tell entire stories. Its use of shallow and soft focus pay repeated dividends, like how the faces of past presidents in White House paintings blur into an indiscriminable haunting of white ghosts. It even cannily slides in the visual language of horror movies to make us afraid of white people. The score is as eclectic as it is sparingly used, a surgical strike rather than a relentless bombardment. The sound design is masterful, letting the shifts from near-silence to deafening-loudness, both smooth and sudden, carry key moments.
Selma’s rock, though, is its performances, and especially its central one; this won’t be the last time you’ll hear the praises of David Oyelowo sung, but that’s because they’re worth singing. Oyelowo’s imbues his King with a refreshing and at times almost shocking humanity, complexity, and vulnerability. Working with a script that carefully avoids every opportunity to collapse its mighty central figure into a two-dimensional secular saint (note how often others call him ‘Martin’), Oyelowo goes further and makes him a person, a person who spends an awfully large amount of time being quiet or even silent, a person who spends more time prevaricating than we might expect, a person who stares off as if contemplating something only he can see, while at the same time that he has a pastor’s natural touch for the right thing to say to those suffering around him. Give credit, too, to Carmen Ejogo as his Coretta, whose perfectly counterpoint performance illuminates the full humanity of a good but fallible man attempting greatness under extraordinary pressure. Give credit also to a script that carefully reserves the familiar image of King as dramatic speechifier, insisting we understand him first and foremost as an organizer. Oyelowo, quietly and brilliantly, accomplishes something staggering: taking a role whose historical weight threatens to overwhelm his performance and not merely countering but reversing that burden. Future generations will have trouble imagining King without seeing Oyelowo’s face.
We should take pause to marvel at the fact that Selma even exists. It’s a film with a $20 million budget directed by a black woman in a Hollywood where only 0.4% of top grossing movies are directed by black women. That’s two movies in five years. It’s a movie in which white people offer to help black people on white terms and are told by black people that, actually, they need to help black people on black terms. It’s a movie that refuses to lionize, or even overly linger, on the white clergy and other volunteers who gravitate to Selma, making their role in the movie parallel their role in the movement. It’s a movie which explicitly calls out its white audience as part of the problem if it’s not actively part of the solution (seeing Selma doesn’t count).
Selma isn’t perfect, but each of it’s flaws reflects a greater strength. If some of its dialogue is sometimes overly expository, let that stand as a reminder of history we need to remember. If some of its interactions sometimes feel overly staged and on-point, more theatrical than cinematic, it’s because Selma isn’t shy about making the terms and the stakes of the debates it represents clear, stark, and unambiguous. If Selma occasionally lags, it’s because its shouldering some burdens. If Selma isn’t always subtle (like when a church’s electrified cross hovers over King’s shoulder in the background), it’s the consequence of a movie with a bold and clear point-of-view and the strength and courage to advocate for it. If Selma largely (though not totally) neglects the economic facet of King’s activism, that’s a necessary cost of its reminder of just what a massive evil Jim Crow was.
The worst thing about Selma is that, in 2014, it feels urgent and necessary. I shouldn’t have to recount recent battles over voting rights restrictions, state surveillance, or police violence, so I won’t; instead, let me recount a few numbers about the economic state of black America. According to the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, black households are 14.6% of the population, but only receive 7.1% of total household income, own just 3.5% of total household assets (and just 2.1% of financial assets) yet owe 8.2% of household debt, meaning that blacks own just 2.6% of the nation’s net wealth. Put another way, over a quarter of black households have zero or negative net wealth, compared to just a tenth of non-black households. Put another way, the average white high school dropout has more wealth than the average black college graduate. And if you didn’t expect to go into a movie review and receive a condensed summary of the economic state of black America, well, tough.
Selma wouldn’t feel quite so necessary and urgent, though, if it didn’t work as a work of narrative cinema on its own terms. It is a riveting story with an unshakable moral core, an increasing rarity in an age when Hollywood seems to have fully abandoned craft and conscience in favor of pander and ethical infantilism. Selma is that rare movie that understands, embraces, and clearly communicates a theory of change, avoiding every pitfall of the inveterate tendency of mass media to self-congratulate or depoliticize. Selma is about how change is work and change is hard, not as a lecture but as an open challenge. This is a film that is good because it’s great, and great because it’s good.