Civil rights biopic 'Selma' is especially relevant today

Jan 7, 2015 at 1:00 am

Selma | B+

For those who do not know recent history — which is, sadly, far too many Americans — March 9, 1965, marked a pivotal moment in our country’s ongoing struggle to establish equal rights.

Racial segregation had been outlawed one year earlier, but black Americans had yet to find justice when it came to the voting booth. South of the Mason-Dixon line white officials created nearly insurmountable barriers to voting by establishing poll taxes, ridiculous competency exams, and even sponsorship requirements. Liberal whites and President Lyndon B. Johnson, weary from the battle against segregation, saw voting as an issue that could wait.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues disagreed. After repeated failures to register black Americans at the polls they organized a 54-mile march, from Selma, Ala., to the state's capital in Montgomery. On the first day 600 unarmed, peaceful black citizens attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were brutally tear-gassed and beaten by state troopers. Our nation's shameful and violent actions were captured by television news networks and broadcast to the rest of the world.

One can only wonder how Fox News would have spun the event had they existed 50 years ago. That the cable network's racially charged narratives find so much favor today (particularly in the South) doesn't speak well of our supposed post-racial achievements. And given the Internet's near-daily footage of unarmed blacks being threatened or killed by white police officers, director Ava DuVernay's measured yet passionate Selma serves as a timely and even necessary reminder of just how ugly things can get.

When one considers the topic at hand, it's easy to see where her movie might have been yet another well-acted, blandly respectful history lesson aimed at liberal-minded audiences. Thankfully, Selma mostly avoids that fate. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb temper the unwieldy scope of history by focusing on the practical mechanics of MLK's political strategy, and the personal and political challenges that stood in his way. They smartly avoid carrying the "important movie" banner by creating an intimate and textured chamber drama that unfolds in unexpected ways.

For one, while King (played by David Oyelowo) is clearly the main character, he is not the main focus. Webb's script shifts perspectives that allows DuVernay to balance Selma's historical, political, and personal connections. From Johnson's Oval Office to George Wallace's mansion to the Kings' bedroom, from raucous church services to hostile county courthouses, from the embittered offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to awkward meetings with Malcolm X to the backrooms where King's faithful coterie plot and plan, Selma integrates the personal with the political. It doesn't always work but it comes damn close — most especially when the violence of March 9 erupts on screen.

Selma also brings the too-often sainted MLK Jr. back down to Earth, depicting his shrewd political sense, his oratorial gifts, and his moments of self-doubt. DuVernay and Webb may not know what made King tick, but they certainly give you a sense of what it was like to be around him. And they don't shy away from his rocky marital life. It's no secret that King's relationship with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) was strained. Selma acknowledges the fact but never lapses into melodrama.

But even with a woman director at the helm, Selma is very much centered around the concerns and actions of men. It's not surprising given the way history is often recorded, but it is odd that DuVernay seems to all but ignore the gender politics of the situation.

More intriguing is that the four lead roles in this distinctly American story — both the Kings, Wallace (Tim Roth) and Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) — are played by Brits. Coupled with 12 Years A Slave's predominantly English and Irish cast, one has to wonder why American actors are so unworthy of depicting their own history.

Nevertheless, the performances are uniformly excellent with Oyelowo conveying both the iconic magnetism and human-sized modesty of King's personality. It is not just a masterful imitation of voice and style but a convincing depiction of a commanding yet imperfect man whose greatest talent may have been his ability to keep his eye on the prize.

In our current climate of divisive ignorance and economic stratification perhaps it's time to reexamine Dr. King's tactics. Selma's unfortunate choice to end with uplift (see, they got to march, everything's cool now) mutes but doesn't silence King's far more urgent and inspirational example: that cunning collective action can turn the tide of public opinion.

Selma is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 127 minutes.