Selma (2014): Written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay, directed by Ava DuVernay. Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussant, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Selssandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey. Running Time: 127 minutes.
When looking at the struggles of our world today, one might be tempted to speak of the “scars” of history, the events, crimes, and tragedies of the past that have directly led to the present. But I have come to realize that “scars” is the wrong word. A scar only appears when a wound has healed, the bleeding has stopped, and new skin has grown in, binding together the scraps of the old. And as the events of Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere showed us this past year, the wounds of slavery and racism in America are far from healed. Indeed, they are still open and weeping.
Ferguson was, of course, no shock to anyone with a full understanding of the legacy of slavery and how long the arc of history truly is. However, as disappointing as I find this to be, it must be admitted that historical perspective is hardly the forte of the human race. This has made the timing of two movies released this year especially poignant, even though the makers and distributors of said films could not have possibly known any of this would happen beforehand. The first is an indie comedy about the microaggressions of racism amongst young adults in an elite university, set in the present, called Dear White People. The other, set almost exactly 50 years in the past and yet never so viscerally relevant to our society as it is now, is Selma.
Right from the start, director Ava DuVernay fully immerses us in the violently open racism that reigned during that time; one of the first scenes of the movie is the Birmingham bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed 4 innocent girls who were doing nothing more than trotting down the steps to attend Sunday School. We all know (or should know) what the scene is as soon as it starts. We know what will happen. And yet, when it does, we still recoil in terrified shock. It still hurts so much. It is one of many powerful moments in the film, but its importance in coming first cannot be overstated.
The rest of the film focuses on the events following the bombing, specifically the campaign for voting rights organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which by this time had already been led by Martin Luther King Jr. for 8 years (here played by David Oyelowo). He is not alone though- he travels with an army of supporters and retainers, mostly other preachers of the Association but a few students as well- and by this time they have perfected a formidable array of public disobedience tactics guaranteed to simultaneously provoke-without-provoking the violent sensitivities of the worst local officials and win over public sympathy, especially white public sympathy, with which he hopes to push a recalcitrant Lyndon Banes Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into pushing a Voting Rights Acts through Congress to end systematic abuse throughout the South designed to prevent more than a fraction of black citizens from voting. The result was the famous march from Selma to Birmingham, which included the Bloody Sunday incident on March 7th, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a squadron of armed officers charged and viciously beat back the first wave of marchers, after which they had to try twice more before they were allowed to pass unmolested along the way to the capital. There the film concludes with a truly stirring speech by Dr. King on the steps of Governor Wallace’s mansion, as his devoted followers look on.
Due to continued legal strife between Dr. King’s children, DuVarney was not able to directly quote any of King’s actual speeches in the film, forcing her and the screenwriters to use extensive paraphrasing instead. While some may view this as a weakness, I actually view it as a strange bit of fortune on the film’s part. The words of Dr. King have been repeated so often and so ad nauseam that, like with many other oft-quoted historical figures like Lincoln or Ghandi, they have ceased to carry any real meaning for people. Repetition has made the words hollow, made us forget to listen to them, and not just hear them. It has dulled us to their power, meaning, and importance. If his final speech in the Alabama capital had been the actual speech, we would simply have looked to pick our own favorite quotes, and the message would once again have been lost. But because there is no “Best Of” quotes list to be heard, we hear the intent and the purpose of King's words once again becoming clear. We don’t just hear, we listen, because we must, and we remember- everything we’ve seen in 2014 has happened before. And the human spirit continues to yearn for something better regardless of the short-term outcome.
It helps, of course, that Oyelowo brings to the table a perfect simulation of King’s powerful cadences and the melodious ring of his voice when he was at his most impassioned. But that is not what makes his performance one of the best of the year, and one of the worst award-season snubs of 2014. What elevates his performance above simple imitation is, like with Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln, and acute understanding of both the personal strengths and the personal weaknesses of Dr. King. Another of the film’s best moments is nothing connected to a speech or the events of Bloody Sunday- it is when, after playing a recording of King having sex with one of his lovers sent to her by the FBI (one of many aspects of the man most people prefer to not think about), Coretta King (an equally effective performance by Carmen Ejogo, and another inexcusable Oscar snub) asks him directly- does he love any of the others? If Oyelowo’s speech scenes are elevating, this one is downright chilling. But it is necessary, just as necessary as the depictions of actual violent acts perpetrated by white supremacists on the other side of the conflict. The flaws found in the best men and women humanity has produced over the millennia do not diminish their achievements. If anything, they make the good in them- in us- all the more wonderful, miraculous, and inspiring. Selma reminds of this just as it reminds us of the tenuous hold of hatred on our hearts, and on the slippery nature of real progress.
Many of you are, no doubt, aware of the layers of controversy surrounding the film, including its near-absence from the roster of Oscar nominees (which is heinous), but particularly in regards to its historical inaccuracies, especially those regarding the character of LBJ. Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ is cold, almost Nixonian in his political calculations, someone who seems to genuinely not care way or the other about the Civil Rights movement, and is in fact irritated and angered by King’s refusal to stop marching and protesting. This is indeed one of the film’s few significant departures from historical record; while Johnson was certainly cautious in his push for Civil Rights reform, there is ample evidence that, by the time he occupied the Oval Office, he was firmly in support of equal rights and determined to pass them as soon as he felt it was doable. He was not nearly as antagonistic towards King as Wilkinson portrays him in the film, and I do find it to be one of the film’s few flaws, an unnecessary addition of another white villain when there were far more than enough in the Deep South that needed no embellishment whatsoever.
That being said, let me make one thing very clear; as inaccurate as this part of the film is, it is absurd to claim that it makes the movie less important, less powerful a work of art, and less necessary as a social commentary. It is cruel to use it as a justification to withhold well-deserved awards recognition, especially when other historical works, each with inaccuracies just as grave or unnecessary, have received lavish attention from various end-of-the-year ceremonies. The Imitation Game, one of the most-nominated Oscar films of this year, will leave the uninformed viewer with the impression that Turing really did withhold the identity of a Soviet spy out of fear he would expose his homosexuality, which would have made him very much guilty of treason. This, too, is a complete fabrication on the film’s part, also there merely to create artificial tension. Is implicating one of the fathers of the modern age as treasonous somehow less offensive than tainting the memory of a President whose record was already anything less than spotless? One of the real-life figures depicted in another multiple-nominee, Foxcatcher, has blasted the film for containing a wide raft on inaccuracies, including stating that his still-living parents were dead. And, if you are a truly brave soul, google “American Sniper Controversy” to get an idea of the many less-than-savory aspects of Chris Kyle’s character either altered or left out entirely of the Clint Eastwood film.
The intent behind the changes, in this case, seems clear- DuVarney did not want another movie about a crucial moment in African-American history to include a white savior to allow white audiences to let themselves off the hook. She sacrificed a certain amount of historical accuracy in order to highlight and focus on the crucial importance of driven, organized, and creative local leadership in bringing about genuine change in their lives. This is, by the way, not without precedent. Another major film about an oft-forgotten aspect of American history, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, while still well-made and well-worth a watch, also makes an unnecessarily villain out of the abolitionist Lewis Tappan, when in fact his creativity, passion, and support for the captives was decisive in securing their acquittal in court and their ultimate return to Africa. But that does not and should not detract from the higher message that film aims at, and neither should that be the case here.
I am ultimately not worried about this controversy sticking though, because it won’t, but this movie’s powerful to captivate, inform and inspire will. Selma is one of the best movies of the year, one of the best movies we’ve ever gotten about the Civil Rights movement, and is the continuation of an increasing focus within the world of film on the less savory aspects of American history and culture that, though late in coming, is more than welcome now. This is a must-see, no matter who, or what color, you are.