The historical drama film carries a certain kind of baggage. There’s always the risk that history will be distorted, often for the sake of a more “dramatic” narrative, or that the historical figures will be depicted as more saintly–or demonic–than they truly were.
Selma is the kind of film which manages to be both compelling as a drama and worthy as a historical chronicle. And it treats its characters as human beings–some noble, some cruel, all flawed, but all human. It has become the locus of a controversy which, as per usual, seems to be propagated by those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a sorry thing, as it may deter people from seeing one of the finest Hollywood films of the year.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) wins the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964–a scene promptly followed by the 1963 Birmingham church bombing (a chilling moment, that), which leads us to King meeting with Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss the future of civil-rights legislation. King insists that Johnson act to eliminate the various blocks Southern states have put in place to prevent blacks from voting, but Johnson wishes to focus on his War on Poverty, and when the meeting fails to produce results, King and his associates Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), and James Orange (Omar Dorsey) set out for Selma, Alabama, where brutal racist Jim Clark (Stan Houston) is sheriff.
Combining with SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members in the area, a protest is held in front of the Selma courthouse, which falls into chaos and mass arrests after Clark’s deputies begin harassing the protesters, which earns Clark a blow on the head from would-be voter Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey). King and his associates are thrown in jail.
And so begins the long, arduous path towards the Voting Rights Act and the final, triumphant march of Selma to Montgomery. There is much suffering–the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Lakeith Lee Stanfield, aka Keith Stanfield) by police and the murder of priest and volunteer James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) by local bigots, and the first attempt at a march, led by Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), which is repelled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Clark’s deputies and a hired posse with clubs and whips (and shown on national television), but ultimately, despite Alabama governor George Wallace’s (Tim Roth) refusal to back down, Johnson, his hand forced, puts the Act before Congress.
The film is punctuated by King’s speeches and by dispatches from the FBI, who are keeping a close eye on him–and not because they’re concerned for his safety.
Where does one begin to discuss Selma? By comparing it to other films which deal with the civil rights movement (there are few) or with the struggles of African-Americans before and after the end of slavery (there are more)? Does it serve any purpose to compare it to 12 Years a Slave, a better, rawer, bleaker film–or is the comparison unfair, comparing an R-rated film by a director known for plumbing the depths of human misery to a PG-13-rated film by a director best known for a character drama (Middle of Nowhere) which was barely released in theaters and is only today (literally, today¹) coming out on DVD? Or is the comparison only worth making because one was an awards contender last year and this is an awards contender this year?
Does one discuss it, then, as drama? Then let me say that, as a drama, it is compelling from start to finish, superbly acted by cast of quality and quantity, passionately directed, well-written, and as a film, well-crafted. It’s a **** film, and if it is not a perfect film, that doesn’t change how good it is. Where films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything feel softened, feel watered-down for “respectable” palates, Selma occupies something like an ideal middle-ground between awards-baiting fare like that and grittier, more provocative works.
Could it be a little harder-hitting, or delve a little deeper into the psyches of its characters or the context of its events? Yes. Is it an extremely well-made film in almost every way, and a worthy film portrait of one of the most significant figures in 20th-century history? Yes. It is a film which the Academy should eat up because it has grace and class, yet does not feel like a soft-boiled take on history meant to impress for the nonce. It is a film which everyone, from students of history to devotees of drama to the politically aware, can see and appreciate. Where a film like The Imitation Game, in portraying Alan Turing’s homosexuality in an absolutely chaste manner, felt tame, Selma, when it confronts King’s infidelities in a single, low-key scene, feels subtle.
One must also discuss Selma as history, and here I must confess I knew of the Selma marches only in fairly broad terms. A little research told me that the film definitely compresses the timeline, or appears to (and, admittedly, it does not provide dates, so one may be well advised to brush up on their history beforehand), and Slate‘s typically helpful overview reveals a few other dramatizations, but the film is apparently fairly accurate, and more importantly, is believable. But, not everyone agrees…
…and therein lies the controversy which has overshadowed the film’s release, in spite of its almost-universally rapturous reviews. The controversy being that the film’s depiction of Johnson is unfair, painting him as a racist and an obstructionist, while, according to Johnson’s assistant for domestic affairs, Joseph A. Califano Jr., “Selma was LBJ’s idea”. The truth of this has been hotly debated, and without more extensive research, I cannot say for sure what the truth is.
But in regards to the portrayal of Johnson’s personality, the film’s critics really should read up on the man. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a headstrong Texan bull of a man, a man so skilled at getting his way that his method of persuasion was ominously dubbed “The Treatment”. As the film portrays him, LBJ resented any situation he was not in control of, and when MLK refuses to heed him and wait for progress to come, he does not take it well.
But I never got a sense of Johnson as a racist or as a man who was indifferent to civil rights, but as a man who wanted to resolve the country’s issues in what he considered a pragmatic fashion, who did not gladly brook alternative agendas. But when King, the SCLC, SNCC, and all of those behind them raise their voices and force his hand, he acquiesces. I did not find the film’s portrayal of Johnson or his character as remotely unfair.
One must not only discuss Selma as a portrait of what happened 50 years ago, but as a reflection of what is happening now (though the timing is coincidental, as the film was probably largely if not entirely in the can at the time of Michael Brown’s death). The film wisely does not play up the links between past and present (as Malcolm X was criticized for doing), but who can watch the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and not think of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice? Who can see the sheriff’s deputies brutalizing the protesters–as they are running for their lives, no less-and not think of those who say that obeying the police is the way to ensure one’s safety?
Who can see the marches, see thousands of people united in triumph, and not wonder what happened to the spirit of that moment? Who, seeing King portrayed here, will not wonder what might have been?
The portrayal of King is the heart of the film. Despite the size of the cast (and despite my initial impressions), Oyelowo is definitely the lead of the film, and his performance is little short of magnificent. What struck me most about his work was his depiction of what I saw as two men in one body: one, “Dr. King”, the great leader, orator, and symbol, and the other, “Martin”, a man who has an uneasy relation with his other self, who is ill at ease around his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
Witness the scene early on, as he discusses his trip to Selma while changing a trash bag in the kitchen. He seems unable to relax in his speech, which still bears a trace of the preacher and orator, and the quotidian action of the housework is performed by him as if it were somehow unfamiliar. Or later, talking to one of his associates before bed, nervously rubbing his neck and stomach, trying to be a man as he must also be a leader and icon. And there’s a great little scene where he calls singer Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) in the middle of the night and asks to hear “the glory of God”. She obliges by launching into “Precious Lord Take My Hand”; it’s a touching look at how King sought to ease his troubled mind.
Oyelowo depicts King as a man whose nature was ultimately noble, a man who was most alive when speaking, whether as a reverend or as a social leader, and his speeches are rousing to hear. But the film and Oyelowo avoid hagiography by subtly showing King’s weaknesses; not just his unease in his quotidian life, but his infidelity, which is dealt with in a scene between him and Coretta, a simple, quiet, wrenching scene, where she devastates us by saying “I know what you sound like”, and he, when asked if he loved the other women, takes a painfully long time to say “no”.
According to the IMDb, the long pause was DuVernay’s idea, and it’s this understanding of King’s character, and of the dichotomy between “Martin” and “Dr. King”, that lifts the film above glorification and ultimately makes it all the more moving. And Oyelowo embraces the humor of the man as well; when a white man in Selma punches him the face, he mutters to a friend, “That white boy can hit“. Between the time I started writing this review and now, Oyelowo has been passed over by the Academy, and it’s a damn shame. He gave a truly superb performance.
While no one else in the cast has as much time to shine as Oyelowo, it’s refreshing how good everyone gets to be:
- Ejogo had been pegged as an early Supporting Actress contender, and while her screen-time is limited (as, apparently, is Laura Dern’s), she communicates the pain of Coretta’s situation perfectly; being separated from her husband for weeks on end, facing threats on his life, and the lives of her children, for his activities, trying to raise children and maintain a household in the midst of all this, and knowing that her husband has cheated on her on top of that. That “I know what you sound like” is, again, a superbly cutting moment. But underneath it all, there is much love between them.
- Wilkinson may not look much like LBJ, and his Texan accent is spotty at best, but like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, he manages to get at the spirit of the man, and contrary to the complaints some have made about the film, I never felt like his LBJ was a truly malicious individual. His having the FBI dig into King’s life, especially their marriage, is unsettling, but the film suggests that even he was humbled by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). Wilkinson, for my money, is very good indeed, and in his confrontation with Wallace, his shift from pragmatic bargaining to disgust (“Are you trying to shit me, George Wallace?” “Mr. President…”) is very well handled indeed.
- Giovanni Ribisi is also quite solid as his aide, Lee White, a calm and collected counterpart to LBJ’s fiery temper.
- Baker, on the other hand, is rather distractingly miscast; he looks little like Hoover, and minimal effort seems to have been made to make him look 70, which the real Hoover was at the time. Those less familiar with Hoover may not notice or care, and Baker plays his brief scene just fine, but he throws things off for me.
- Keith Stanfield (here credited as Lakeith Lee Stanfield) earned a Supporting Actor nomination from me last year for Short Term 12, and while his role here is much smaller, he does a fine job nonetheless; his final scene, where he desperately tries to convince his mother and grandfather to be calm and pretend they’ve been in a restaurant rather than participating in a march, is played with the same kind of tormented sympathy that he brought to the earlier film.
- Henry G. Sanders, as his grandfather Cager Lee, is deeply affecting, especially when he meets with King after Jimmie’s death and tries to control his awe at meeting MLK while trying to control his despair at losing his grandson.
- Tim Roth’s Wallace was also considered an early contender; as it happens, his screen-time is fairly brief, but he gets across a kind of slippery courteousness, mixed with an impatience for the demands of the protesters, arguing that “they’re never satisfied”. Not an Oscar-level performance, but he is good, especially in his face-off with LBJ.
- Oprah only really has two scenes of consequence in the film, most notably the opening scene where she attempts to register and is thwarted by the absurd requirements imposed by the county clerk (Clay Chappell). It’s a brief scene, and overall a brief role, but her presence adds class and gravitas to the film. And the sight of her being thrown to the ground by the sheriff’s men packs a wrenching punch.
- As the men of the SCLC, Domingo brings a nice wittiness to Abernathy (he has a great actor’s face), and Pierce a low-key strength to Williams; when he asks SNCC member John Lewis (Stephan James) if he can swim (as the first attempt at the march commences), it’s a smart little moment where fear and resourcefulness–and a bit of humor–come together. Holland’s Andrew Young, Common’s James Bevel, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Bayard Rustin are all solid as well. And after Tessa Thompson blew me away in Dear White People, I had high hopes for her work here. Sadly, she has little to really do, but having an appreciation for her and hopes for her future career, it was good to see her.
And there are others–Houston as the brutish Sheriff Clark, Niecy Nash as King’s host in Selma, Richie Jean Jackson, Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, trying to resolve the breach between him and King, Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Johnson, who ruled that the march should be allowed to proceed without legal challenge. All do fine work, adding to this exceptionally strong ensemble.
Ava DuVernay notably became the first woman of color to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director; the Academy passed her over, and it’s their loss. DuVernay’s direction is surehanded throughout, as skillful in the quiet moments as in those like the Birmingham bombing (a jolting moment), or the repulsion of the first attempt at the march, a frightening spectacle of violence and fear, with billy-club wielding policemen and men horseback with whips wreaking havoc on the marchers. Although the sheer number of characters and the complexity of the historical scenario can be daunting at times, DuVernay keeps our attention–and our emotions–focused throughout.
The only part of the film which falls a bit short is the final march, which is shown largely through stock footage (including glimpses of celebrities like Harry Belafonte), leading up to Oyelowo delivering an approximation (more on that shortly) of King’s speech in front of the Alabama State Capitol. While the running time was no doubt a consideration (to say nothing of the budget–the film cost only $20 million), it feels a bit underwhelming. I appreciate, however, that the text epilogue which is now de rigueur for historical dramas² was incorporated into the final scene–more gracefully than the standard white-text-on-black-screen format.
But this issue aside, DuVernay handles the film with a welcome mixture of grace and passion, again crafting a film which is smooth enough to satisfy the casual viewer but powerful enough to satisfy most cinéastes.
Though the script is credited to Paul Webb, DuVernay is reputedly responsible for most of the shooting script. In any case, it’s a good script, a fairly clear dramatization of the events, with enough character depth to inspire the fine performances. As with many historical dramas, one takes the script somewhat for granted, but in this case, it’s worth noting that DuVernay and/or Webb had to craft King’s speeches somewhat from scratch, as the rights to his actual words could not be obtained. And I can say I wouldn’t have noticed had I not known, well-done as they are. For that alone, the script merits credit.
Bradford Young’s cinematography makes excellent use of shadows and the ‘Scope frame; take the early scene where King sits in his kitchen listening to Mahalia Jackson singing; shrouded in lonely darkness, set at the edge of the frame, Young presents King as a rather lonely figure. The period detail is consistently strong; Stephen Averick’s editing helps keep things moving briskly.
There appears to be little or no original score, but the soundtrack is well-chosen, and the song “Glory”, by Common and John Legend (which won the Globe and should win the Oscar), provides a suitably stirring note to end the film on (it plays over the end credits).
And a stirring film it is, telling a story of American heroism in a most appropriate fashion. Paramount seems to have botched its release somewhat, which doubtless did its Oscar chances any favors (it was nominated for Picture and Song alone–both deservedly, but far too small a showing for so good a film), and the box-office returns have been only moderate. But this is a film that any student of American history, and any serious film buff, needs to see.
¹Today being last Tuesday, January 13.
²The last such film I can think of that didn’t use these was The Aviator.