“Selma” is the most relevant movie of the past year – with or without detractors.
The film, directed by rising star Ava DuVernay, depicts Dr. Martin Luther King leading an activist movement in the hostile racial climate of Selma, Alabama, which helped spur the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Remarkably, the movie is the first major Hollywood production to tackle King’s legacy, and it accomplishes several cinematic feats. “Selma” effectively humanizes King. At one point MLK, portrayed brilliantly played by British actor David Oyelowo, tells a supporter he’s “no different than any other man,” and “Selma” does a top-notch job of establishing the kernel of truth in that statement. This film doesn’t shy away from the civil rights icon’s infidelities, his doubts or his fears – and yet it also captures his unique charisma and power.
The movie also manages to be a history lesson without feeling like one, and perhaps most importantly, it speaks to the racial strife still plaguing America today – from the voting booths to the recent unrest over police shooting deaths of black men.
And yet, as often is the case with civil rights-era biopics, there are critics already taking issue with this surefire awards contender. In a piece for Politico titled “What ‘Selma’ got wrong,” historian Mark K. Updegrove excoriated the film for portraying President B. Lyndon Johnson as something of an antagonist to the civil rights movement. Updegrove writes that the occasionally unflattering image of LBJ in “Selma” “flies in the face of history.”
It’s true that “Selma,” which never pretends to be a documentary, probably overstates the conflict between MLK and LBJ in order to heighten the tension around the film’s central fight: whether the president will push for passage of legislation to outlaw discriminatory voting practices in the South. That said, LBJ’s legacy in this regard is not black and white either. He fought civil rights bills for several years as a legislator and was widely known for commiserating with segregationist peers and hurling racial slurs with abandon.
Also, the film is not wholly unsympathetic to Johnson. One of its most stirring scenes shows the Texan directly confronting reactionary Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Ultimately, Johnson tells the race-baiter that he doesn’t want his legacy sullied by being linked to “the likes of you.”
Still, the preoccupation with historical accuracy largely misses the more prescient messages of “Selma.” African-American audiences are used to these kinds of quibbles. “The Hurricane,” which dramatizes the unjust imprisonment of black boxer Rubin Carter, saw its award season chances derailed when pundits questioned the veracity of its based-on-a-true-story script back in 1999. Even a movie as innocuous as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was criticized in some circles for supposedly not painting former President Ronald Reagan in the best light.
These complaints overlook the substance and merit of “Selma.” DuVernay has pulled off what several other directors could only dream of doing. In a clear and accessible way, she has brought the civil rights movement to life with nuance and sophistication.
The film shows that there was no monolithic worship of MLK. The factional and strategic disputes between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the more radical Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are given ample screen time. The same goes for the dramatization of the voting rights fight. In the opening scene, a de-glammed Oprah Winfrey portrays the late, great Annie Lee Cooper, a middle-aged woman trying earnestly to jump through the multiple hurdles facing blacks trying to register to vote in Alabama.
She is asked how many county judges there are in the state, and after she triumphantly answers 67 correctly, an unmoved registrar says, “Name them.” This simple, elegant scene conveys everything you need to know about the stakes of the struggle over voting rights, which of course, continues today.
However, it is “Selma’s” depiction of police brutality that has the most timely resonance and likely will strike fear into some anxious viewers. When nighttime protesters in Selma are assaulted by police wielding batons in riot gear and later the young Jimmie Lee Jackson is essentially executed by an Alabama state trooper, it’s not hard to draw a parallel to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The speeches delivered by Oyelowo as King are cleverly staged so that he appears to be addressing the film’s audience as well as his supporters in the church pews. His words could just as easily be uttered today, especially when he calls on whites and blacks who stand idly by in the face of violence to do something or when the battle to stage a nonviolent protest on the Edmund Pettus Bridge leads to clashes with police.
DuVernay doesn’t make the mistake many other filmmakers have made when it comes to biopics: She doesn’t try to present the entirety of a life, nor does she try to make the movement about any one man or woman. Yes, MLK is the film’s protagonist but he is also just one player in a much larger campaign.
What “Selma” hopes to convey is that that campaign is not over. During a Dec. 23 appearance on msnbc’s “The Reid Report,” DuVernay talked about how the film was made in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle a vital portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, section 4(b), which forced jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to seek pre-clearance from the federal government before implementing changes to their voting laws.
“It seems like the point of [“Selma”] being in the world in this moment [is] to really just amplify that this moment isn’t new, that it’s cyclical, that it’s on a continuum, that it continues to happen,” DuVernay told host Joy Reid. “I feel just really honored we have something to share and add to the conversation.”