The genius of Selma (2014) is the way it understands that the story of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the capitol in Montgomery doesn’t simply take place on the streets and bridges and on courthouse steps, but that it requires equally important scenes in living rooms and empty school classrooms. When the movie is working, it’s showing the inner workings of the leadership of a movement. It’s not about one man but about the contentious battle over ideas and direction. When Selma moves away from this, it’s like turning off a light and we wait in the dark for the light to come back on. There are too many stretches of darkness here but goodness, what light.
The movie is directed by Ava DuVernay with verve and intelligence. It begins as a personal showdown between Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the deliberate speed in which voting rights need to be extended to all Americans. Of course, we know that the 15th and 19th Amendments give all Americans, regardless of race or sex, the right to vote in theory, but we are shown in practice that that is hardly the case. Early on, we understand the stakes. A woman named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) tries to register but is denied after being forced to go through a humiliatingly difficult special test. When four girls are murdered in the famous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, we learn that the perpetrators walked free because an all-white jury failed to convict them. All-white juries are a fact of life when the only people eligible for serving on juries (registered voters) are white.
We see King and his deputies and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and watch him lead the struggle to unify the protestors and force the nation to take notice of the systemic injustice. We see him give speeches and go toe-to-toe with the most powerful men in the world. We see the FBI descend upon his life, tapping his phone and harassing him and his family. Through it all, we see the work King does: two aborted marches, one by the police intervention, another by King’s decision, and a third successful one. We see multiple sit-ins and protests and arrests and threats. The pressure is overwhelming.
Among the most ardent criticisms of Selma is the movie’s treatment of Johnson, villainized here unfairly and shown not nearly as supportive as he actually was. I’m afraid, however, that I can’t rouse my ire about this. That’s confusing art with history. I don’t go to Selma to learn anything about the actual LBJ, I don’t go to Selma to learn anything about the actual Martin Luther King, I go to Selma to see a director tell a story, that its based on real events is completely inconsequential. This isn’t journalism. Is Amadeus (1984) true from a historical perspective? Is JFK (1991)? Is any movie? Amadeus and JFK count themselves among the greatest movies ever made because they find something true that exists beyond history. They don’t represent the actual people in them, they create personas that stand outside their inspirations. Selma isn’t any more about Martin Luther King than Amadeus is about Mozart, or JFK is about Kennedy or Birdman (2014) is about Michael Keaton. They are about our ideas of certain subjects and people. I don’t think any less of the actual President Lyndon B. Johnson after seeing Selma because the actual President Lyndon B. Johnson isn’t in Selma. I sympathetically recognize the right to be offended by someone who rejects that distinction, but I can’t see the movie with those eyes because they are not mine. In this case, Johnson must represent all of mainstream American whiteness–imploring patience, slow to change, miffed that King wants more when he should be thankful for what he’s already been given, unable to recognize that civil rights should never be something that has to be given but should be unquestionable fact.
Here Wilkinson is like a hen-pecked spouse, hemming and hawing about his other presidential duties as mealy-mouthed excuses for his passing of King’s buck. The performance never fully works, not because it’s inaccurate but because it puts into question his ability to do any political maneuvering at all, and therefore his threats to King are neutered. We never doubt that he’ll come around. More effective as the villain is Tim Roth’s George Wallace, the unapologetically racist Alabama governor, and his deputies and enforcers. In fact, it takes a villain like Wallace to rouse the flimsy Johnson to action. They share a scene that sizzles.
But DuVernay is also using Johnson’s obstinacy to make a statement, so often absent from civil rights pictures, that King and his leaders will do this alone. This is, of course, just as historically inaccurate, as social change requires everyone’s participation (and there is a cameo by a white couple who join the march and feel the consequences), but DuVernay makes a choice that is accurate to her telling of this story.
The problem is with the central figure of that story. As with Lincoln (2012), the filmmakers wisely choose to avoid giving us the entire pie of a legendary figure and instead present a highly detailed piece. But the figure of Martin Luther King is too large for this or any slice. Despite Oyelowo’s terrific performance, the movie grinds to a halt when it figures most prominently on King and his private life. The movie can’t divorce the man from the institution and we never feel like we are seeing anything else than a moving statue; the movie is always aware of its subject’s monumental importance. The warts they attempt to give him fall flat because they aren’t committed to them, and the celebratory tone at the end, though there is cause for celebration, reinforces the dangerous lesson taught in too many schools to this day—that King’s dream came true and there is no work left to be done.
This flies in the face of the moments that absolutely shine in Selma, the moments of the work that King and his associates were doing. I cherished the fascinating and relevant sections in which we are treated to heated debates about where the movement should go, starring the luminaries of the time such as Andrew Young (André Holland), James Bevel (Common), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey), John Lewis (Stephan James) and others. There are significant disagreements about what should be pushed for, what should be prioritized. There are warring factions (we get a cameo from Malcolm X [Nigel Thatch] and hear resentment from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and it’s impossible not to think about where leaders like these are in relation to today’s social crises. DuVernay pays so much attention to the planning and thought behind the marches that it demands that modern protests and social displays be put under the same scrutiny. We have the ability to make a lot a noise but have we lost the insight to signify something?
Still, the most brilliant sequence in the movie (and some of the best moviemaking of the year) is the clash between police and protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that is so devastating and powerful that it elevates and heightens the stakes. It’s so raw and immediate it stands alongside scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Paths of Glory (1958) and any other great indictment of violence on screen. The level of detail makes the violence so real, so impactful, some of the best representation of domestic terrorism I’ve ever seen. For a movie that is at its best when it’s talking behind the scenes, it gives us a stark reminder that talk has real consequences and that sometimes only actions create change. In its shining moments, Selma works as a reminder, both of the gap that still exists between where we are and where we should be, and of the discussion, debate and even dreaming that are required to get there.