By Marshall Shaffer
“Selma” is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.
Or, I should say, “Selma” is not just a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic. It is so much more than just the story of one man.
Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb create their “Lincoln,” a film concerning the premier orator of his era set in the twentieth century’s ’65. This man, standing with little more than ideology and conscience, must work against a political establishment stacked against them. What is right, in the minds of these officials, must take a backseat to what the voting public is ready to accept.
But DuVernay, thankfully, disposes of Spielberg’s hagiography of Honest Abe that reeked of cinematic mothballs. She opts for a portrayal of Dr. King that focuses on who he was and what that allowed him to accomplish. In a way, not receiving the rights to use King’s actual speeches makes “Selma” a stronger movie. Whether organically or out of necessity, he becomes so much more than a collection of recognizable catchphrases that trigger memories of a high school civics class.
“Selma” certainly does not shy away from some character details that the history books often elide, such as his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War and his marital infidelities. Dr. King, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, does not always don his shining armor, either. The film’s most powerful display of racially motivated violence takes place when hundreds of protesters attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be brutally attacked by a cabal of police and townsmen alike. King is not there with them. He is at home, trying to smooth over a marital rough patch with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
“Selma” envisions two radically different spheres: the tempestuous ticking time bomb of Selma, Alabama and the hermetically sealed Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capitol, impending legacy judgments and the constant threat of getting voted out in the next election are the arbiters of all decisions. Discussions of appearing just always precede any talk of what is actually just. This mentality reaches a fever pitch in a climactic showdown of political dick-measuring between LBJ and George Wallace. Their words and actions in the scene play so farcically out-of-touch that the dialogue might as well have been grafted in from “Dr. Strangelove.”
Sure, getting down in the mud with them is certainly not beneath King, who engages in a high-stakes game of chicken over the march to Montgomery with the president. Yet these worlds are only really linked in “Selma” by a series of FBI bulletins, ordered by J. Edgar Hoover to document the movements of the movement. These communications, overlaid in white typewriter font over the scenes in Selma, often distort the nature of what actually happened. DuVernay uses this dissonance to powerful effect as an illustration of how those who hold power in society can misconstrue and code behaviors and actions to keep any threat in check.
Perhaps better than any film in recent memory, “Selma” addresses racism as a systematic intimidation and fear rather than just a character affectation. It resists reducing the Selma campaign and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge into a direct and immediate cause for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It was merely another domino that had to fall in the long, arduous process of rooting out endemic discrimination.
Most importantly, “Selma” redresses the Civil Rights narratives propagated in films like “The Help” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” granting blacks far greater agency in the attainment of their struggle to achieve even the most basic Constitutional promises of liberty. Dr. King and his adherents believe that equality is not merely the absence of segregation; it is also the presence of reconciliation and respect.
This film concludes with their success, but that sense of achievement dissipates when “Selma” ends and we return to the real world and can see his work is still incomplete. DuVernay knows this and rightly possesses a sense of urgency in her filmmaking. Though the march from Selma is over, 50 years later, its promises remain unfulfilled. That can all change, however, if people heed the call of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and finish his last sentence: “Unless…”
“Selma” opens Friday nation wide.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE.