Show of hands: who wants to read what another middle-class white guy thinks about Selma?
So much glowing praise has been written by countless others that I’m not sure my voice needs to count as anything other than a vote for “Yes, you should go see it now,” and this is apropos because voting was one of the key issues at stake in the famous historical event it covers. And what a simple pleasure it is to side with the professional viewing majority who’ve given it a landslide 99% rating on the Tomatometer, nicked slightly by thumbs-down from two white critics over 60.
It took forty-six years for Hollywood to produce the very first theatrical film about the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Its predecessors are a few documentaries; an infamous X-rated film that shouldn’t count; two TV-movies, including the Peabody Award-winning Boycott, which sounds very interesting to me right now; and an Emmy-nominated animated time-travel adventure. Thanks to director Ava DuVernay (who previously appeared in last year’s Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself), the MLK film bibliography looks a lot stronger now.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Selma is not the kind of biopic that starts with two-year-old Marty giving precocious life-saving speeches to kids on the corner, or the kind that ends with a magnificent twenty-minute funeral service after his assassination. Instead the focus here is on 1965’s Selma Voting Rights Campaign, when King and many followers demonstrated the dire need for black representation in voting booths by staging hopefully nonviolent marches. Yes, plural. It took more than one try to get the point across without one-sided bloodshed by the local white aggressor majority. Results from the early attempts were…ugly.
David Oyelowo is Martin Luther King, the Atlanta-born pastor who becomes the point man behind whom everyone else organizes. When he faces delays and lectures about national priorities from President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), scorn from Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), and a rising body count while ostensibly “free” people remain second-class prisoners in their own home state…actually, King’s first impulse isn’t to stand on a soapbox and save the day with the greatest sermons of all time. The road to heroism was a long winding gauntlet, and not all his problems came from external threats.
It may be only one year in King’s life, but this sampling size is more than enough for DuVernay and Oyelowo and to show you who he was and why he meant so much to so many.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Oyelowo’s inspired rendition of King is surrounded with a powerful support system: the Oprah Winfrey; Wendell Pierce, a.k.a. Bunk from The Wire; Lorraine Toussaint (Forever, Orange is the New Black); Common, who’s also on the soundtrack; Carmen Ejogo, reprising the role of Coretta Scott King, whom she previously played in Boycott; Alessandro Nivola (Jurassic Park 3) as prominent civil rights attorney John Doar, who just passed away in November; two very recognizable surprise faces who appear in the final act when the courtroom becomes a testing ground; and probably many more you’ll recognize that I didn’t.
Other players on the wrong side of history, or at least shown to be of no help here, include Giovanni Ribisi as Johnson’s advisor, Lee C. White; Stephen Root from Office Space as a racist cop; and character actor Dylan Baker as a malignant J. Edgar Hoover.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Dr. King isn’t the only wise man around. He’s not a lone articulate voice forced to lead and educate the masses singlehandedly while keeping his own spirits high through sheer force of awesomeness. In several scenes we’re moved not just by King’s eloquence and courage, but by seeing the same qualities among his closest teammates, men and women who lend their own formidable talents to the cause. Several are just as educated and as godly as King, and some have the privilege of ministering to him when he needs help the most. King couldn’t simply march from Selma to Birmingham alone. The film nails the fact that he was not alone.
As we learn in the epilogue, some of the younger citizens involved went on to greater things after Selma. The message here isn’t merely “King saved us all!” but something closer to “Look what we all accomplished together.”
And first and foremost, King’s a man of God. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect or sinless, not by a long shot, but he knows when to repent and sin no more. At his darkest moments of uncertainty, doubt, and wavering boldness in the face of intimidating adversity, King turns to God and to prayer. God’s Word is reassuring, encouraging, instructive, and brightly illuminating for Him. At one critical point a moment of prayer leads to an unpopular judgment call that draws ire from those around him and jeopardizes the impact of the statement they’re trying to make. When you’re caught up in a moment, no one wants to hear that sometimes rushing the timetable isn’t always the safest solution. In this instance, the victory is delayed, but when victory does arrive (oops sorry history spoilers) it’s a total, uncompromised joy.
Nitpicking? Much publicity has been made of the movie’s version of President Johnson’s role as being much more contentious about the Voting Rights Act and all the marches than he was in reality. Johnson wasn’t their key antagonist by a long shot, but in a sense his part in the movie isn’t as the star of a faithful LBJ biopic; that’s some other Johnson in some other movie where he really is the center of attention. Here, Johnson is more of a symbol — not necessarily of overt hatred or zealous oppression, but rather of all the stalling tactics, all the wishy-washy excuses, all the “not my problem” brushoffs, all the passive tolerance of hatred, and all the frustrations and despair borne of a just cause interminably deferred. Johnson-as-symbol becomes the point man for the large part of America that didn’t mind the idea of civil rights, but convinced itself it had more important things to work on.
One of the largest responsibilities and drawbacks of being President is that you are where the buck stops. If things go wrong on your watch, even if they weren’t directly your fault, even if you took steps to solve the problems at hand, even if your family and friends swear you’re cool, you’ll receive more than your share of the blame anyway. When you’re doing Presidenting right, sucking it up and toughing it out is part of the job, no matter how much we constituents are shaming or trolling you.
Enough about Johnson’s acts in office have been captured in various media, and have been extolled to varying lengths in works that were actually about him, that I’d like to think no single depiction of him as an opponent in someone else’s story should be able to erase his true successes from the record books. I expect his legacy will go on. But for the space of these two hours, the buck stops with him. He can take it.
So did I like it or not? Yes. Yes, I did. Even without the specters of 2014 headlines looming like shameful, heartbreaking colossi, Selma would be a vital snapshot of where we used to be and what it took to move forward and make ourselves better than that. Despite all the everyday litanies about our country’s endless flaws and horrors, America needs to remember that its gritty, sordid past is nonetheless filled with examples of great people who envisioned, embodied, and led forces of positive change. Selma delivers that and more in Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal of a Martin Luther King who was both a pacifist firebrand and a humble servant of God and His people.
I’m finishing this entry several hours before Selma‘s name will be popping up in Thursday morning’s Academy Awards nominations announcement. I look forward to counting its categories, and I hope Academy voters won’t dismiss the film as coldly as early-20th-century America dismissed its black citizens.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Selma end credits, but there’s a wordy disclaimer paragraph reconfirming that this is not a documentary. I couldn’t possibly catch it all, but I know I saw the word “emphatically” used.
While you’re hanging out in the theater and forming discussion groups, you’ll also hear the new Common/John Legend duet “Glory” (a safe bet for a Best Original Song nod), and after that comes vintage recordings of actual Selma residents back in the day singing three different hymns and representing the true sounds of freedom and hope.