The making of a movie like Selma—director Ava DuVernay’s powerful portrayal of the mid-’60s civil rights protests that helped changed the mind of a president and a nation—constitutes that rare thing, the no-lose/no-win situation. When the subject is as near-saintly as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a filmmaker, even if she wanted to, could not escape a certain amount of reflected glory. At the same time, when the subject is as near-saintly as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., putting a character on screen who validates both the myth and the man is a near-impossibility.
Nevertheless: DuVernay succeeds despite the odds, with actor David Oyelowo creating a King who is magisterial, flawed, a leader, a schemer, a preacher, a politician, something of a sorcerer and a man who seems to know that his allotment of sand is streaming through the cosmic hourglass. This may be partly the viewer’s projection, of course, but we know what we know. And there’s no escaping history.
Nor is there any escaping current events. While DuVernay is not out to make everybody happy, her film’s release and recent news events have converged in a manner that should make the marketing department of Paramount Pictures something close to deliriously happy, while leaving the rest of us slightly despondent.
“Selma” is a historical movie, of course, a period piece about a moment when our founding principles were questioned, challenged and born again. Like “Lincoln,” the film is not a soup-to-nuts biopic in any traditional sense but the story of an episode in a nation’s maturation and a rigorous exercise in hindsight.
Thanks to recent actions by some national politicians, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court, and police departments and grand juries in New York, St. Louis and elsewhere, “Selma” has exploded out of the past and landed squarely around our necks like a metaphorical noose. Efforts to limit access to the polls—the very thing both blacks and whites are bleeding for in 1965 on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—have found quite a bit of traction, especially in the states where a U.S. Supreme Court majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts has rather blithely rolled back restrictions of the Voting Rights Act. This is the very legislation M.L.K. is seen strong-arming Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into supporting, at a time when the American president would have preferred to be strategizing his War on Poverty.
There is no escaping, either, the reflection “Selma” will cast on the ranks of police departments across the land, whose public relations could not be much worse at the moment and whose tactics at times seem, in light of “Selma,” to be rooted in the grand old traditions of Bull Connor, the Ku Klux Klan and a strain of systemic racism that, as shown in the film, tends to manifest itself in brutality.
Pure evil, however, is never that interesting in and of itself, any more than is pure insanity. There has to be a portion of complexity in the malevolence—the Iago factor, so to speak. What is it in “Selma” that lay behind the violence, so artfully recreated by the director and perpetrated against all those peaceful protesters pouring across the bridge and demanding their inalienable, God-and-Thomas Jefferson-given rights? DuVernay doesn’t bother to examine the roots of such hate displayed by poor white Southerners, who curse or spit or do worse against the demonstrators during the historical marches of the movie. What the venom is about, quite obviously, is the desperate rage of a people who will have no one to look down on, once black Americans get to vote like their white counterparts. This is the stuff of pathos, which isn’t always so riveting either.
Where DuVernay metes out her vitriol instead is among the politicians—George Wallace, played with cold-blooded cynicism by Tim Roth, and L.B.J., whom Wilkinson imbues with just the right amount of Texas vexation at having his well-ordered agenda upset by this soft-spoken audacity called Martin Luther King. (For what it’s worth, Oyelowo, Roth, Wilkinson and Paul Webb, the screenwriter, are all British.)
DuVernay, who up until a few years ago was working as a publicist for other people’s movies, begins her narrative in 1964, with King about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in the cool, civilized confines of Oslo, knowing full well—the knowledge is never absent from Oyelowo’s face—that a cauldron is simmering back in Alabama. There Wallace rules, and men like Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) are allowed to keep their personal version of the “peace.” (Of Clark, James Baldwin wrote, “One has to assume that he is a man like me, but he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with a gun, and to use a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts.... [White Southerners’] moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called color.”) Black Americans—facing obstructions at the polls that can only be alleviated by a specifically targeted federal law—have to take to the street to force that law into being.
It is an invigorating movie, this “Selma,” with the characters and rhetoric providing much of the power. DuVernay’s portrayal of King’s posse—among them the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland) and Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson)—brings the supporting cast of the civil rights battle to full-blooded life as never before. The director is not a stylist, preferring to shoot the story straightforwardly, mostly, with a few flourishes that seem forced. The murder of the four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 is electrifying at first, but she allows the computerized aftershocks to go on too long. Similarly, one can feel the assault on Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), but her Spike Lee-inspired slo-mo descent onto a receding sidewalk feels like film-school stuff. “Selma” is so moving—and immediate—that such distractions hardly seem necessary.