Early in Selma, Martin Luther King Jr.more channeled than merely played by David Oyelowoand other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference rejoice when they learn that Sheriff Jim Clark’s reaction to their planned protests is expected to be more like the kneejerk public brutality of “Bull” Connor in Birmingham, Alabama than the relatively measured and nonviolent response by Chief Laurie Pritchett in Albany, Georgia.
Selma bears witness to the power of protest in the Civil Rights Movement. It also affirms the truly subversive nature of King’s brand of civil disobedience, using nonviolent response to unjust laws as a way to make evildoers reveal themselves, no matter the bloody cost. The film succeeds as both a moving historical drama and a snapshot biopic of King during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of early 1965. Against the backdrop of our post-Ferguson divide, it’s a timely paean to nonviolent resistance and a primer on its effective application.
Director Ava DuVernay‘s unadorned, didactic presentation camouflages a remarkably layered narrative that explores complexities inside and outside the movement. King must assuage members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including John Lewis (Stephan James), who are suspicious that SCLC’s agitation will undermine their incremental grassroots efforts in Selma.
On the other hand, Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and his followers denounce King’s nonviolent methods as weak and ineffectual. When Malcolm X extends an olive branch of cooperation after being excommunicated from the Nation of Islam, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, who makes the most of her limited screen time) urges her husband to consider the offer. However, King remains angry at the man who once labeled him “a modern Uncle Tom.”
Indeed, part of DuVernay’s brilliance is that she extols King as a historical figure and agent for social change but declines to cast him as a plaster saint. While the film doesn’t wallow in the tawdry details of King’s infidelity, he does acknowledge it to his wife. As she grapples with her husband’s betrayal, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) exploits it in the hopes of tempering King’s single-minded determination for Johnson to immediately support federal voting-rights legislationthat’s another part of Selma‘s relevance, reminding us of the origins and necessity of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Much has been made of the film’s depiction of a duplicitous President Johnson. But screenwriter Paul Webb has written a multifaceted portrait of a politician, born of the Deep South, who is both mindful of his legacy and politically pragmatic. Even when he is not motivated by altruism, Johnson is keenly attuned to the march of history, a lesson he tries to impart to Alabama’s defiant Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth).
Selma shows the nobility of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who suffers the indignity of an impossible citizenship test in her attempt to register to vote. It honors the martyrdom of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Rev. James Reeb, both killed for daring to march in Selma. And it exalts the Solomon-like wisdom and soaring oratory of King.
DuVernay’s inability to secure permission to use King’s actual speeches allows her to tailor and amplify his rhetoric. He’s a leader capable of moving men to the mountaintop who is also sometimes beset by doubt and indecision. His savvy instincts set the stage for the first Selma march, known as “Bloody Sunday,” being broadcast to horrified audiences around the world. But he wasn’t a part of the march, nor did he escape criticism when he unexpectedly turned around a second march two days later.
It’s illustrative to compare Selma to Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Abraham Lincoln. Both films portray champions of racial justice in America in Oscar-worthy performances, through the prism of a particular historical event (for Lincoln, it’s the effort to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Each figure must overcome personal pain and the politics of his era to enact change.
But as evidenced by their respective titles, Selma is more about a movement than a man. Webb’s original script reportedly revolved around King’s dealings with LBJ before DuVernay’s wholesale rewrite shifted the film’s focus, aptly, to an ongoing crusade whose lessons we still have not entirely learned.
This article appeared in print with the headline “March of history.”