Directed by Ava DuVernay
Do not see Selma or any other feature film if you are looking for an objective account of history.
Ava DuVernay unabashedly claims that her films are “directly related to my gaze . . . through the eyes of a black woman.” Her Selma was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, but it also has been attacked for its historical inaccuracies, particularly its misrepresentation of President Lyndon Johnson. DuVernay has not backed down in the face of her critics, and for good reason: she was making a film, after all, not writing a dissertation.
DuVernay’s movie is designed to work emotionally, to let you feel what many African Americans feel about the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s—their parents’ and grandparents’ quest not just for voting rights but also personal dignity. She allows you to imagine yourself participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery, engaged in the moral project of racial justice. The film reminds us that one of the virtues of the medium is its ability to extend the reach of compassion by showing us the human face of the other.
Still, Selma is not a great film. The narrative is fractured, the performances are disappointing, the directorial compromise between mimicry and method acting is baffling, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s charisma is lost in DuVernay’s efforts to humanize him.
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DuVernay, who grew up in a Los Angeles ghetto and earned a scholarship to UCLA, is a prodigious achiever. She has gone from publicizing and marketing films to making her own. In 2012 she became the first African American woman to be named best director at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere, which tells the story of a black woman whose husband is in prison. Her focus was on contemporary black experience as she knew it, and no one except David Oyelowo would have pegged her to make Selma. Oyelowo, a British actor who appeared in Lincoln (2012), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), and A Most Violent Year (2014), had long wanted to play the role of King. British screenwriter Paul Webb had written a script about Selma, and Pathé UK had put up the seed money. So this uniquely American story actually began as a British project.
Webb’s screenplay centered on Johnson and his efforts to launch the war on poverty and the Voting Rights Act with help from King. But the project never got off the ground. One of the obstacles was the King family, who are financially demanding and difficult; they own the rights to his speeches and the story of his life. Recently they made a deal for film rights with Stephen Spielberg and DreamWorks, but DuVernay gives us an unauthorized version: she was not even allowed to use King’s speech in Montgomery at the end of the triumphant march. She improvised it herself.
Oyelowo worked with DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere and was much impressed. It was he who convinced the Brits to reach out to her to make Selma; she agreed, but only if she could rewrite the script. Although they gave her free rein, she did not escape the British influence. Not only is David Oyelowo a British King, but Tom Wilkinson a British Johnson, Carmen Ejogo a British Coretta, and Tim Roth an unlikely British Governor George Wallace.
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DuVernay’s film begins with King dressing in formal clothes to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He is having trouble tying his ascot, and a beautiful Coretta, gowned for the ceremony, comes into the room to tie it for him. As the proceedings begin, DuVernay cuts to a moment a year earlier. She shows us four young African American girls in their Sunday finery, chatting and giggling as they descend a staircase. Suddenly a huge explosion consumes the innocent children. DuVernay is reminding us of the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. King’s glory and the little girls’ destruction: that juxtaposition opens the narrative.
If there is a saint in her film it is Coretta, not Martin. Ejogo does look like Coretta; she is a radiantly beautiful version, loyal even in the face of her husband’s infidelities, which are more than a subplot in Selma. DuVernay shows us dated entries from the files of J. Edgar Hoover, who kept many political and intellectual figures under surveillance, going so far as to pry into their sexual activities. In the film, Johnson, desperate to stop the Selma march, asks Hoover to undermine King by telling his wife about his affairs.
Even if the facts are wrong, the feelings in Selma are right.
In one scene, the Kings’ phone rings, and when Coretta picks it up we hear the sounds of a couple having noisy sex. Martin insists it is not him, and Coretta agrees: “I know how you sound.” But she also knows what he has been up to. She asks her preacher-husband, “Do you love any of them?” Sex is one thing, but love would be a betrayal. There is a surprisingly long pause—a directorial touch?—and then the “no” in reply. Does the Coretta of the film believe him? Are we meant to? Does Martin believe it, or does he even know the truthful answer? DuVernay’s gaze shows us the idol’s clay feet. In one cinematic stroke, she characterizes the Kings’ marriage and reveals that the most powerful white men in the United States, Johnson and Hoover, are the real moral hypocrites. In DuVernay’s telling of Selma, it is the long-suffering black women, including Coretta, who are the steadying force behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Oprah Winfrey helped to produce the film. She also appears in a cameo as Annie Lee Cooper, an educated woman patiently trying to register to vote by answering the increasingly absurd questions posed by the ignorant white racist registrar, determined to see her fail. Later, when club-swinging white police brutally attack a peaceful black protest march, Annie resists and angrily swings her heavy purse in righteous defiance. It is the first and only act of black violence shown in the film. When I saw the movie, there were people in the theater audience who cheered at Oprah’s swing, and one jubilant male voice shouted “black power!” In Selma, the call is instead: power to the black women!
In pursuit of this theme, DuVernay inserts a confusing, almost surrealistic scene into the narrative. An insomniac King telephones and awakens a sleeping woman. He tells her, “I need to hear God’s voice.” The woman gets out of bed, and while her husband goes on sleeping in the background she sings into the phone the gospel hymn “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” The scene will make better sense to those who realize the singer, played by Ledisi Young, is supposed to be Mahalia Jackson—another powerful woman supporting the whims of the childlike Martin. DuVernay wants her audience to see that King did not go it alone, that a lot of brothers and sisters went with him, and not just as passive followers. She gives us Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (André Holland), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), John Lewis (Stephan James), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint). The identities of all these people register and resonate as they come together to march from Selma.
DuVernay even adds Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) to the mix. Often King and Malcolm X are characterized as poles apart—Christian nonviolent unity versus defiant Muslim separatism—but many now think they were reconciling before Malcolm X’s assassination. In DuVernay’s script, Malcolm X shows up at Coretta’s home while her husband is in prison, and he offers to play bad cop to King’s good cop in the negotiations with Johnson. King wants none of it and insinuates that his wife has a romantic interest in Malcolm X.
If King loses much of his charisma in DuVernay’s telling, he also suffers from Oyelowo’s performance. Though most mainstream critics have praised his acting, people who have heard the “I Have a Dream” speech already have an image of King as the most inspiring orator of the twentieth century, sanctified as America’s Gandhi. Perhaps no actor can equal that role, but Oyelowo’s attempt at the magisterial Southern accent falters, and at times the effete British actor seems to show through. Nor does he convey King’s virility and commanding presence. The other British actors are no better. Wilkinson is usually superb, but here he has none of Johnson’s vitality or dynamism; Johnson was a shrewd politician, but in this portrayal he is nothing short of conniving Machiavellian. Roth, who is known for his crazed villains, got special billing, but he seems miscast as George Wallace—the moon-faced Alabama governor with a little man’s bitter temper, for whom segregation was the law of nature.
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There were actually three attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The first, known as Bloody Sunday, is recreated in the film with clouds of tear gas, biting police dogs, armed cavalry, and unprovoked and unreasonable violence against a peaceful African American demonstration. It is one of the movie’s most unforgettable scenes. But King did not participate in that first march, and all DuVernay tells us is that he had a previous engagement in Atlanta.
King does lead the second march, known as Turnaround Tuesday. He stops in the middle of the bridge and falls to his knees in prayer, then stands up, turns around, and leads the demonstrators back. Why? Is he concerned for the safety of those he is leading? Or is he a coward? DuVernay leaves the question open.
After a court order grants the legal right to demonstrate, King leads the triumphant third march. It is the “We Shall Overcome” moment, as celebrities black and white, along with religious leaders of all denominations, join the five-day, fifty-four-mile trek. DuVernay interlaces her film with compelling footage of the actual march. You may feel like cheering, yet in DuVernay’s film the man who leads the rally is a diminished figure.
But if King is reduced in charisma, piety, and leadership, his role as a political player is not. DuVernay portrays him as a seasoned infighter. At crucial moments he phones or meets with Johnson to pressure him to pass the Voting Rights Act. Johnson is shown as totally opposed, but King forces him to yield, and then Johnson hypocritically takes the credit.
Even if the facts are wrong and Johnson is maligned, the feelings in DuVernay’s telling are right. She shows us the looks of entitled hatred and contempt on the faces of white men and women who went to church on Sunday and seemed to believe that Jim Crow was God’s will. And she shows us America waking up to the ugly truths of segregation and crimes against humanity, as the racist brutality is revealed on millions of television screens across the country. The moral lesson that one takes from DuVernay’s Selma is that black lives matter not only in terms of survival but also of human dignity. It may not be a great film, but it is one that ought to be seen.