Director: Ava DuVernay
Runtime: 104 minutes
It seems unthinkable that a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. hasn't been the center of a major film until this year. If Hollywood can greenlight a movie about the woman who invented Tupperware, surely they can make room for one of the most iconic activists in history. After much needless back and forth (because apparently vast sections of the industry see Martin Luther friggin' King as a subject with slim appeal), King has finally be granted his moment in the cinematic sunlight. Yet unlike so many historical biopics, Ava DuVernay's Selma opts for a limited focus, which only magnifies its emotional and intellectual power. In confining her film to a period of six months, Selma achieves what decades-spanning historical dramas wish they could do.
DuVernay's previous two features, including 2012's excellent Middle of Nowhere, have always been intimate, so it's no surprise to see her avoid a purposefully epic scope. And yet what she has pulled off with Selma is thrillingly expansive as it unpacks the myriad angles of the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement. Selma only covers the run up and duration of King's march from Selma to Montgomery, but the film still feels like a comprehensive drama without turning into a history lecture.
The most obvious comparison that springs to mind is Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a film that also deconstructed an iconic figure. Selma, like Lincoln (which went behind the scenes of the 13th Amendment's passage), opts for humanity rather than hagiography. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) gives his share of rousing speeches, but DuVernay is more interested in picking apart the reasons behind King's speeches and his leadership. Co-written by Paul Webb (DuVernay did a second draft but was, sadly, not able to earn her own credit as a writer), Selma is at its finest when it portrays King as a shrewd, media-savvy tactician. King is met with hesitation by Pres. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and must take matters into his own hands to keep the Civil Rights Movement in the limelight. Having already delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech and won the Nobel Peace Prize, King sees that it's going to take more to grab the attention of the public and the White House to make meaningful change across the country.
Selma opening scenes feel a bit stale, and they represent the most traditional aspects of the story. But once King's movement relocates to Selma, Alabama for the next stage of their fight, DuVernay's direction blossoms. In one of King's speeches, he remarks that there are intersections of history and injustice where action is the only option for the oppressed and the marginalized. This would be an important point in any year, but the timing of the film's release causes this sentiment to register two-fold. The march to Montgomery was the action of the moment, and Selma has proven to be the film of the moment. DuVernay's staging and shooting of the police brutality against the march is plenty harrowing as a historical dramatization, but it also acts as a solemn reminder of how slowly things have progressed in the decades since.
Though King is undoubtedly the story's anchor, Webb and DuVernay cover an impressive amount of territory without contriving unnecessary subplots. The scenes at the White House lend a complexity to Pres. Johnson and his mixed feelings about how to help King despite the "101 issues" he's also dealing with. Wilkinson starts off a bit cartoonish, but over the course of the narrative he emerges as a fully-formed character. Also quite removed from the central plot is Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), but the script never forgets her. The film only touches on King's infidelities once, but the scene is a masterclass of dramatic tension and subtlety centered on Ejogo and Oyelowo's powerhouse performances. Even one-off scenes, like Malcolm X's (Nigel Thatch) encounter with Coretta, are inserted with intelligence and restraint that bolsters, rather than distracts from, King's development.
The film wouldn't be complete, however, without a solid leading man. Oyelowo is more than up to the task of capturing King and making him a multifaceted, flawed leader. Even when he speaks, often with great force, to his followers, Oyelowo's performance never devolves into hollow theatrics. Recent events lend an added context to Selma, but King's speeches (DuVernay doesn't have the rights to the originals, and had to create her own) are tremendously powerful and inspiring.
With such sensitive subject matter, Selma could have easily become manipulative in its historical recreations. Yet the most moving moments in the story come from characters we barely know, like a young protester (Short Term 12's Keith Stanfield) viciously targeted after standing up to Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). The specific tragedies that befall members of the Civil Rights Movement are just as impactful as King's actions, and lend an even greater emotional weight to Selma's narrative.
Ironically, the only times when Selma stumbles are when DuVernay tries to shoe-horn in more "modern" filmmaking techniques. In one instance, as protester Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is slammed to the ground by police, the film cuts to a shot where it looks as though the camera has been mounted on top of the character, following her movements with an off-putting stillness that undercuts the chaos of the scenario. In another scene, slow motion is used to capture the death of a minor character hitting the ground with a thud, and it looks like something out of a boxing movie. There's a distracting artifice to these brief snippets that seems at odd with the rest of Selma's naturalistic, deep-in-the-trenches visual approach.
Ultimately, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise gripping and insightful drama. DuVernay has said that she doesn't usually care for historical dramas, but she sure as hell proves that she knows how to make a good one. Selma is topical and noteworthy for a whole host of reasons, but none of these should get in the way for praising the film's legitimate artistic merits. Selma's skillful integration of scenes beyond its setting have a way of opening the story and magnifying its impact without straining to be something more. With her third feature, DuVernay has not only made a powerful and socially-conscious drama that registers far beyond its limited scope as it caps off a dynamic year for films written and directed by black artists (and, notably, black women). In striving for intimacy, she has created an unintentional epic that, like King's legacy, is about more than simply having a dream.