These past few months have seen the resurgence of the biopic; from Imitation Game to Mr. Turner, from American Sniper to Foxcatcher – but Selma stands out as the best of a solid bunch.
This is the long awaited Martin Luther King movie, but it’s not all about him. His name isn’t in the title and he wasn’t even present on that fateful first day of the march to Montgomery. He was an astounding person leading a community of many and the movie does this fact justice by turning the name into a human, and making icons of every last hero in Selma.
David Oyelowo plays the man himself, and much has been made of his Oscar snub, some decrying racial prejudice when faced with what is an all-white cast list. In an odd way, it isn’t hard to see why one might overlook Oyelowo’s work because he embodies the role so entirely from his first blink to his last breath; he simply is Martin Luther King. This is a career-high performance. Oyelowo is masterful at capturing King’s every intonation, gesture and posture even in the invented scenes. For this credit, which we know will not be coming from the academy, is very much due.
The presumed test of any actor playing Martin Luther King would surely be his speeches; King was one of histories most gifted orators and his performances were the most rousing and powerful of the civil rights movement. However, not a single word of one is uttered in this film. In 2009, those speeches were licensed to DreamWorks with the intention that someday Steven Spielberg could make a biopic of King’s life, and so they can be used nowhere else. Instead writer Paul Webb picked apart King’s words and reconstructed methodology and intention, without quoting a thing. While in the lead up to its release this was considered an impairment, in the final product it could even be considered a blessing.
The director Ava DuVernay, a woman also robbed of an academy nomination is scrupulous in her efforts to explore this one event with as much diversity of perspective as possible. Be it President or sheriff or governor or white man or SNCC leader or peaceful marchers or militant civil rights leaders or their wives, every face and opinion is shown, possessing a clear moral tone but providing airtime for those divergent from it.
Selma is a very different film from American Sniper, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons. The latter was controversial in its one note-portrayal of the Iraq War and glorification of its disturbing hero, Chris Kyle. This film crucially gives King the same treatment as it does every other aspect, and aims to show every side of the man between the oratory performances and iconic appearances. He is seen joking with friends, beaten in jail and at home with wife and children. He was clearly a man of great humility but was far from flawless; he made callous jokes about his own death in front of his wife and slept with other women.
Just as DuVernay knew that more needed to be shown than the infamous King moments of which we are already familiar, she also understands the power of iconography and the historical weight of the images she was recreating. Carried by Oyelowo’s screen presence, many of the shots of King could comfortably be used on the front cover of a history book. DuVernay shines best in the moments of violence however; never gratuitous, these brutal acts are shot in extreme close up. They’re dark and intimate and we’re made to feel every hit. Two particular incidents where crowds of black protestors and troops clash are especially powerful: that of a night time attack where an elderly man is beaten down, and on the infamous bridge to Selma.
DuVernay’s penchant for context means little more need to be said than simply displaying the visual brutality of innocent people being knocked to their knees while marching in the street for basic human dignities, arriving as a jolt of energy against cinematic silence. The effects of these moments are so strong that some of the later conversational pieces do lack the same impact; two later moments of resolution were historically climatic but visually less so. Perhaps a less linear adherence to those progresses would have better sustained the film’s tension before the final emotive climax came.
At the same time, the words chosen for characters pay fine attention to their perspectives as individuals. It could be said that it’s easy to provoke an emotional response in cinema by simply portraying heart-wrenching moments from the past on screen, but under DuVernay, small-scale character work makes the climatic moments feel so much more powerful and current.
It is a didactic film but it would be hard for a period drama of any merit not to be. It urges that in our own lives we don’t unthinkingly cast aspersions about even our enemies; for example, President Johnson and civil rights leaders alike dismiss the incredible freedom fighter, Malcolm X, as a black militant. With Martin Luther King Jr., it also urges us to hold the same standards to our heroes.