Few Americans have been remembered and venerated as greatly as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but Ava DuVernay’s excellent Selma isn’t interested in simply tipping its hat to the legend. Instead, Selma looks closer, to find the real man behind the icon and elegantly put his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement into perspective.
Though King (masterfully portrayed by David Oyelowo) was the face of the nonviolent protests throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he was not the only one to devote (and indeed eventually give) his life to the cause of racial equality, a distinction DuVernay’s film takes great care to make. There were others too, like John Lewis (Stephan James), the young chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday; Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who famously punched racist Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) outside a courthouse where she had been waiting to register to vote; and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who was unarmed when an Alabama State Trooper gunned him down in the aftermath of a Marion protest. The Civil Rights Movement was theirs too, and so it’s fitting that Selma is also a celebration and commemoration of all they sacrificed for it.
However, to use the word “commemoration” is not to imply that Selma exists solely as a solemn remembrance of struggles past. It doesn’t. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb fully capture the blood, sweat and tears of the movement, transporting viewers to a time and place in American history with an atmosphere so steeped in fury and passion that it sears the skin. By preserving the gritty, dirty and brutal realism of the day, the pair are able to use the Civil Rights Movement as a foundation, upon which they construct a generation-spanning monument to grander ideas of race, rights and the American people’s treatment of both. Today, as we still endeavor but often fail to find justice for young black men slain in similar circumstances to Jimmie Lee Jackson, Selma‘s timing couldn’t be more tragically opportune.
Still, none of it could work without complete clarity of purpose and flawless execution. Luckily, DuVernay has both at her disposal. Start the Best Director talk now – the little-known helmer is a revelation, adroitly manipulating the camera to capture the scale of the protests as well as the more subtle, intangible emotions of those who were a part of them. DuVernay’s partnership with the brilliant cinematographer Bradford Young is a fruitful one, as Selma‘s evocative use of naturalistic lighting and deep shadow renders the film an unexpectedly sumptuous feast for the eyes. The two create gorgeous and often overpowering tableaus, particularly during those marches that bubbled over into horrific violence and bare-faced hatred. But even in its less busy scenes, like King’s nighttime phone call to singer Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), Selma is a work of art.
The performances are equally sublime on the other side of the screen. Oyelowo completely embodies King from the film’s first scene, nailing his sonorous voice and broad but burdened frame. Selma doesn’t shy away from the less saintly aspects of King’s personality, and Oyelowo thrives during scenes in which the man’s morals are called into question. Even visionaries aren’t gifted with 20/20 foresight, and the film dwells on King’s agonizing self-doubt as he stands poised to either bring the movement to triumph or ruin. In a year packed with impressive performances, Oyelowo’s may well take the cake, so convincingly does he bring King to life.
And though the actor gets more time to impress than others, he’s not the only stunner on display. Carmen Ejogo conjures outstanding grace and dignity to play Coretta King, while Tom Wilkinson does remarkable work as President Lyndon Johnson, whose unwillingness to sign the Voting Rights Act was one impetus for the Selma to Montgomery marches. In smaller roles, Lorraine Toussaint and the aforementioned James are worthy of particular praise, though the real energy of Selma comes from how all the actors build off of one another to create an emotional chorus.
There’s magic in Selma that’s almost beyond words. DuVernay has succeeded in creating one of the best films of the year, as well as one of the best films ever made about the Civil Rights Movement. The film’s overwhelming emotion is one of its strongest assets, allowing it to tap into a timeless truth about the lengths to which people will go to ensure the realization of their most deeply felt, all-consuming dreams. Selma may be set in the ’60s, but it’s not about that time period, not really. It is concerned not with textbook history but with living, breathing, bleeding ideas that still confound, dismay and haunt us in the modern era. Though King and his supporters accomplished wonders during their time, the film reminds us that there’s still much to be done today.
Selma is many things, a beautiful biopic and a compelling character study among them, but most importantly, it is an elegant, explicit call to action – one that we must heed, now and for as long as injustice is allowed to continue in opposition to the principles that King and those like him stood for. King was not a faultless, incomparable leader, nor was he the only man capable of affecting real change. He was as imperfect and impassioned as the rest of us, as prone to mistakes but also as willing to press on as others who came before him and have arrived since. There are others who can further his cause and fulfill his dream. What makes movies like Selma so crucial is that they communicate that message with a force that could jolt some of those very individuals to attention and action.
Gorgeously shot, beautifully written and brought to vivid life by an assortment of wonderful performances, Selma is stunningly powerful, emotive and indispensable filmmaking.