Ava DuVernay’s Selma begins with a close-up of its primary focus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), doing one of the things he tends to be reduced to: giving a racially motivated speech. Or at least, this appears to be the case. After setting a self-serious, overly reverent tone, King stops and complains to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) about his neck tie. Yes, the man who had a dream also had a neck tie, and although he was mainly discontented with the American social landscape, he could also be discontented with his own appearance. Fifty years after the passing of the Voting Rights Act (which the film’s titular marches helped to initiate), Selma is the first major motion picture to focus upon the man who made a difference, and after completely re-writing the script to shift its focus away from Lyndon B. Johnson, DuVernay uses the movie to explore not only the difference, but equally the man.
Selma continuously bounces between high, low, and morally ambiguous points in the events surrounding the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, fifty miles apart in the state of Alabama. No one moment is forced into a contrived, direct relation with another, but many of King’s most integral successes and failures from this time are fluently woven into the same tapestry, with each low point reinforcing his humanity, and each high reinforcing his greatness. The way in which DuVernay handles this balance is astonishing: you resent the man who cheats on his wife, and a scene later, respect the same man who inspired such positive change in his troubled country.
Human error thus becomes a common motif in Selma, as mistakes and misjudgements from either side – activists or racists – often provide opportunities for the other to take advantage of. And it’s all convincingly human error, such as the outburst of rage from Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) after witnessing a racial assault, which ends up landing the entire group of protestors in jail and thwarting the first march. In the ensuing sequence, King feels the already formidable odds turning further against him, and he seems as though he’s ready to give up; but the man’s spirit is never quashed, and when he eventually springs back to form, the rapture feels properly earned. That the characters are appropriately flawed and susceptible to failure means that success depends upon a lot of variables (i.e. a lot of people keeping their cool), which not only sustains tension but also creates a strong sense of community amongst the protesting forces.
DuVernay had no access to the original speeches (the King estate having already licensed them away to Warner Bros. and DreamWorks), and while lesser talents would find this a stumbling block, she and screenwriter Paul Webb instead wrote new speeches from scratch, adapting King’s speech patterns, cadences and delivery into original monologues that are as believable as they are moving. This resourcefulness may perhaps be DuVernay’s forté, as the directress thrives within the modest budget – reportedly half of what she actually wanted – by completely nailing the movie’s emotional foundation, and building the rest of the film around it.
It also helps that she has an incredible cast to work with, particularly David Oyelowo who not only successfully adapts to King’s manner of speech (outside of the actor’s British accent), but performs with a bottled tension and reserved charisma, only fully unleashing in his scenes of leadership. He’s joined by Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson, who commands a lurching authority as a hurried man attempting to maintain national stability in a period of unrest, as well as Tim Roth as the sneering George Wallace, Carmen Ejogo as the wearied Coretta Scott King, and Keith Stanfield (who is quickly becoming one of my favourite young actors) as the tender, tragic Jimmie Lee Jackson.
That Oyelowo, Ejogo, Wilkinson and Roth are all British actors playing key roles in an American story is perhaps peculiar, but it works in a movie such as Selma wherein the focus is not upon the reverance of historical figures, but in humanising them without any patriotic influence, a goal that really benefits from bringing an outsiders’ perspective to the role. (This isn’t to say that Americans couldn’t play these roles, of course, just that the performances have a strong sense of British dryness beneath them that steers the movie away from melodrama). In this, Selma works much in the same way as Steve McQueen’s Brit-packed 12 Years a Slave, but although this movie packs a solid gut-punch in places, it goes down easier by working more towards a depiction of positivity rather than one of ills. And unlike McQueen’s movie, Selma is endlessly watchable partially because of the strength of its source material, but also due to its magnetising performances, Bradford Young’s impeccable cinematography, and DuVernay’s beautiful touch holding the whole gang together.