When Selma first premiered I caught NPR interviews with director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo and could hear the palpable passion that they had put into this work. I knew I wanted to watch it. Of course, regrettably, I didn’t make the time for it then. But I knew it would make a great addition to my Shame list.
Last February I finally did make the time to watch it, I even began writing my blog post but for some reason I couldn’t push through. It kinda just felt like my write up wasn’t doing the film justice. As it turns out, that may have been a good thing. Not only is the film even more relevant now, watching it again filled me with a sense of hope that I haven’t really felt since our Presidential election. Yeah, sorry folks, it’s going to get political.
Selma recalls a particularly awful time in America’s history. Last year when I first watched it, for me, it represented how far we had come as a nation. Now given the current political and cultural landscape, it represents how little America has learned in fifty-two years.
My thoughts on the film (and other things) continue after the jump, just as a disclaimer these are my own personal views and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of other contributors to this blog.
What a time to be alive, amirite? If you’re paying attention to the news (and let’s face it, you may not be. You haven’t even made the time to watch Jaws in your 20 to 30-something years of existence. I’m kidding, you’re a great person) you’ll know that things are just a teeny bit turbulent out there.
January was a busy month. On Monday January 16th we celebrated a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then on January 20th we installed into the Oval Office a man who largely represents everything that Dr. King fought against. On January 21st, we witnessed the largest protest march on Washington since the 1970’s and simultaneous peaceful protests just like it around the country and around the globe.
Say what you will about what is in President Donald Trump’s heart, his words and his actions speak for themselves. Just this month he tweeted that John Lewis, the congressman and civil-rights activist John Lewis, the John Lewis that marched with Dr. King and was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettis bridge as depicted in Selma…That that particular John Lewis was “all talk and no action”.
We find ourselves at the beginning of an administration whose favrorite tactic is re-writing the narrative of current and historical events to suit their own ends. Things are not good, folks. Every single day a policy proclamation is made that I and lots of people like me disagree with. Roll back the Affordable Care Act. Push forward with the Keystone Pipeline. Build a wall. Ban Muslims. And that is just the first week. Now is the perfect time to talk about a film that reminds us of the brutal struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The rights that people fought and died for that seem to hang in the balance at this very moment. In truth, the high profile murders of black citizens by police in recent years and the demonstrations waged by the Black Lives Matter movement are a striking parallel to the Civil Rights Movement. Selma is a reminder of another dark time in our country’s history and provides a potential road map for resisting terrible things wrought by our own country. Selma also conveys the hope that as long as we refuse to be silent in the face of injustice, good people can prevail.
Selma is a slice of life biopic following Dr. Martin Luther King from the time he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize up to his leading of the historic March from Selma, Alabama to the doorstep of racist firebrand, Governor George Wallace. This was done to bring attention to the plight of black Americans trying to exercise their right to vote in the south.
What’s immediately impressive about the film is how DuVernay’s direction and writing and Oyelowo’s performance take the titanic figure of MLK and turn him into a regular human being. He’s not the guy at the top of the Black History Month bulletin board in the hallway of your elementary school. He’s not the historical giant in grainy black and white footage. His supporters idolize him as others see him as an opportunistic attention seeker. He has the ear of the Johnson administration but also its ire from what they see as rabble rousing. He has a loving wife, but his marriage is strained due to the pressures of his position and his own philandering. His methods, peaceful though they may be, get people bloodied, broken and killed. It would have been much easier to produce a film that simply lionizes King for two hours. Instead, DuVernay and Oyelowo paint the picture of a flawed man doing his best.
DuVernay has noted that the production did not have the rights to reenact any of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. This is probably for the best as it allows Oyelowo’s performances during the speech scenes to elevate beyond simple impersonation, really allowing him to make artful choices and to create a portrayal of King that is a singular and special thing. Moreover the writing is such that you really do get the sense that the speech being delivered is something that Dr. King could have said.
Cinematographer Bradford Young deserves all of the praise he gets for his unique and interesting work here. What was most noticeable to me was the way that he frames characters. Figures are commonly framed facing the very edge of the screen, which you don’t see very often in traditional framing. This may symbolize the hard wall of oppression these characters are constantly facing.
You’re also as likely to see characters framed dead center, the way you might normally see a politician framed during a televised speech. I noticed that this seems to occur when the character pictured is standing on the moral high ground of an issue, or comes around to the right side of history.
There is quite a lot of violence depicted in the film, presented in both a stylized and documentary style fashion. For example Selma’s depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is drawn out with a series of abstract, slow motion close ups of the victims as they are tossed about by the explosion. To me it recalls the vivid, artistic imagery of the opening title sequence from a James Bond film, albeit in a gruesome and tragic context here.
Contrast this with the depiction of Bloody Sunday, where marchers were brutalized on the Edmund Pettus bridge. This is presented in a more on the ground, in the thick of it way akin to the Omaha Beach open from Saving Private Ryan. The action is frenetic at times, slowed down at others and constantly jumping between the characters while still being easy to follow and impactful. DuVernay has stated that prior to this she had only made films where people sit in a room and talk and yet she shows an adeptness with action sequence here, it is powerful, well-shot and hard to watch.
The violence dovetails into even more heart-wrenching scenes showing the aftermath, where characters must confront grief and blame. These moments are true emotional crescendos and often circle back around to messages of hope.
Also of note are the interstitial title cards used during the film to establish various settings and scenes. They come in the form of actual notes from dossiers kept on MLK and his contemporaries and serve as a chilling insight into the incredible surveillance he was under at the time.
Selma did come under criticism from fans of President Lyndon Johnson, who is portrayed as combative and at times racist. I’m no LBJ historian but I understand the man could be both brash and vulgar, though he did come around to championing the Civil Rights act of 1964. What I do know for sure is that every good movie needs an antagonist. The LBJ administration is one here, as is the FBI, as are George Wallace and Sherrif Jim Clarke, as are the majority of the racist white population of Alabama and even some of Dr. King’s colleagues. I do feel like DuVernay has tried to create a fair a portrayal of everyone involved in these events.
Maybe you’re like me, liberal-leaning and deeply concerned about the direction of our country. Maybe you’re not like me, maybe you’re a conservative who may or may not be hopeful about our new administration. Whoever you are I would encourage you to watch Selma and implore you to empathize with your fellow citizen, one who may be very scared of how living in Trump World is going to affect their livelihood and the lives of those they care about. Many more marches are planned for the coming year on a myriad of issues that will be important to everyone over the next four years and beyond. Selma tells the story of people who marched, bled and died for the good of our country and it is now largely indisputable as to who ended up on the right side of history and who did not. Nobody knows what exactly is to come, but a little bit of empathy never made anything worse. This is a very well made movie, very worth your time and very important to America at this very moment.
The Stunt Man
Smokey and the Bandit
Lawrence of Arabia
The Man with the Movie Camera
Breakfast at Tiffanys
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring