United They Stood

20 January 2015

Ava DuVernay’s film Selma recreates a pivotal moment in America’s civil rights movement with intelligence and stunning power. 

Ave DuVernay’s wonderful new film, Selma, focuses on a series of three marches led by Martin Luther King in 1965, in which protestors walked the 54-mile highway from Selma to Montgomery, in protest at racist local policies that prevented African-Americans from registering to vote.

I was fortunate enough to see a preview of Selma (which opens in the UK on 6 February) on Martin Luther King Day. By that point, the film was engulfed in controversy over its snubbing at the Academy Awards, taking just two nominations for Best Film and Best Original Song. I can now only agree with all those hand-wringing Hollywood liberals. Selma is one of the major films of the year, a fine and long overdue tribute to Dr King and the civil rights movement, and an engrossing and powerful piece of filmmaking. At the very least, the film should have scored recognition for its director, for the screenplay credited to Paul Webb (with contributions by DuVernay) and for the brilliant David Oyelowo who doesn’t play Dr King so much as channel him.  It’s my hope that all those rich old Californian men who people the Academy get an attack of white guilt at the eleventh hour and award Selma the top prize, though I’d be just as happy to see it go to Richard Linklater’s wonderful Boyhood.

Selma could have quite easily followed the well-worn paths trodden by other earnest, well-intentioned biopics about great men advocating for social change, and to some extent it does. Dr King gets the reverent and heroic presentation that he deserves, and the significance of the march on Selma in the civil rights movement is presented with gravity and a careful eye for detail. The film’s brilliance lies in its willingness to push beyond this formula and find a more expansive and emotionally urgent way to present history.

As the title of the film suggests, the intention is to portray a community and show us how grassroots politics works. Dr King is presented not as a lone hero but the leader of a community. King is seldom shown on his own. He’s surrounded by and in continual dialogue with his fellow organisers James Bevel and Hosea Williams, local Selma activists Amelia Boynton and John Lewis, his long-suffering wife Coretta. There’s room too, briefly, for Bayard Rustin, King’s openly gay chief strategist, and protestors Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb who were murdered in and around Selma. The cumulative effect of these portraits is more than just honour roll calling – it’s a powerful reminder that it takes a community to push for social change. As charismatic as King was, his contribution was supported and galvanised by his colleagues and supporters.

I was particularly moved by an early scene, where King and his team arrive in Selma and sit down to a meal prepared by a local woman. There’s a lovely, joking collegiality among the men, one of whom stops, mid-argument, to thank the woman who’s just passed him a plate of food. It’s a tiny moment in the film, perhaps one or two seconds, but it gives a sense of lives existing at the margins and continuing beyond the frame of the film. Everyone’s contribution however humble, is important. Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers, has a notable cameo as Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma resident who was repeated denied the right to register to vote. Oprah gets the film’s one moment of non-pacifist protest, when she lands a spectacular right hook on the jaw of a racist sheriff. Though it’s a setback for King’s cause, its a moment of emotional release for all that pent up fury, prompting “You go girl!” cheers from the audience at my screening.

DuVernay’s panoramic scope and a community of fine supporting actors becomes a platform from which David Oyelowo launches his extraordinary performance as Dr  King. Oyelowo does a phenomenal job of portraying King’s appearance, voice and fiery powers of oratory. His performance feels searingly and surprisingly human. We see the weight of his responsibilities to his community and his vocation, his fears about death or harm to his family, and his anger and impatience at the white establishment who tell him to wait for equal rights. DuVernay pays particular attention to the Kings’ fraught marriage, which weathers some heavy storms. In one hair-raising scene, the Kings listen to a faked tape sent to Coretta by the CIA, purporting to record King having sex with another woman. “It’s not you – I recognise your voice”, Coretta says shakily, before questioning King coolly on his real-life infidelities. A less brave filmmaker would have left this out, so as to not tarnish King’s saintly reputation. DuVernay is made of sterner and smarter stuff. Her portrait of King gives him back to us, not as a modern martyr, but as a man – charismatic, brave, flawed, but committed to his cause.

The filmmakers were denied the rights to use King’s speeches in the screenplay, which I think works to Selma’s benefit. As thrilling as it would have been to see Oyelowo declaim the “I Had a Dream” speech, this might have become a greatest hits collection. Instead, we get to experience King as if for the first time. Much of Oyelowo’s performance is spent listening to others. There’s a heart-rending scene where he comforts Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather Cager Lee, after Jackson has been shot by policemen after a night protest. DuVernay lets the scene play on quietly without interruption. There are no inspiring words from King set to a sweeping soundtrack: Oyelowo simply stands with the old man, absorbing his pain and feeling his own despair. It’s a stunning, deeply felt performance, that goes deep and rings true.

Amid this display of black community and solidarity, let’s not forget the old white guys in suits. Selma shows as keen interest in the power holders as it does in those who want more of it. Lyndon Johnson, the President who eventually passed legislation requiring states to uphold the equal voting laws, is played cleverly by Tom Wilkinson as a charismatic but never completely likeable snake charmer. There’s a fiendishly good scene between Johnson and the snake – Alabama Governor George Wallace, played with reptilian cool by Tim Roth – in which they trade provocations, shifting nervously as they contemplate the end of their grip on power.

With this level of attention to a range of supporting characters, Selma should have been seven hours long. It clocks in at a lean two hours, and is paced like a stealth thriller. It achieves that rare and extraordinary thing, that Hilary Mantel managed in Wolf Hall – to retell well-known history in a way that feels immediate, unexpected and bracing. I was especially impressed by the filming of the many scenes of brutal violence. DuVernay isn’t interested in showing graphic details of batons coming down on skulls or bullets splattering blood as they pierce through clothes and skin. We’re shown enough of the police attacks, accentuated with brilliant sound editing, to register the terror and pain caused, which never feels gratuitous or pornographic. I wonder if this is the start of a feminine/feminist revolution in filmed portrayals of violence – to focus on impact rather than gore. If it is, then vive la revolution.

Selma ends, as it should, on a triumphant high, with King preaching in Montgomery following the law change. It’s a moment punctuated with sadness, as DuVernay adds brief onscreen biographies of the main players and reminds us of King’s assassination just a few years later. The film does what all great works of humanist art strive to do – it informs, it inspires, and it reconnects us with our shared and bruised humanity. If you see one film this year, get on the bus and go and see Selma.

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