Overview: Martin Luther King Jr. struggles with his personal convictions while organizing a march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. 2014; Distributed by Paramount Pictures; Rated PG-13; 127 minutes.
“What Are You Following Me For?”: While Martin Luther King Jr. has been portrayed in numerous Hollywood films, filmmakers have struggled for decades to tell a story with the civil rights leader at the center. For a man whose life and speeches have been so thoroughly examined, Dr. King’s powerful historical presence makes crafting a bio-film that feels necessary and sufficient no easy task. Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have found the best possible way to tell King’s story: by focusing on a specific point in time that allows for an introspective look at King’s work and personal life. Instead of following the pattern of most biopics and recounting King’s life from beginning to end, Selma’s careful focus allows the film’s moments to breathe and have impact. While Selma is primarily King’s story, the narrative scope allows the supporting figures in his life to stand out, ultimately humanizing the man who has become almost messianic to many. It’s not the historical moments to which the film owes its immense power, rather it’s the quiet moments between King and Coretta, and King and John Lewis. It’s the way the light catches the dust motes in King’s jail cell. It’s the expertly framed close-ups on King, those who stood against him, and those who marched alongside him.
“I Don’t Have a Gun!”: The film’s brutalization is hard-hitting. DuVernay doesn’t pull away from the violence, but this tactic never feels exploitative. It’s refreshing to see a 20th century set, racially-charged film that isn’t a flaccid proclamation of “look how far we’ve come since then,” or one that caters to a specific audience who wants race relations delivered in neat packages of forgiveness and good feelings. Selma hits hard, even more so in light of the protests and riots that rocked America this fall. The effectiveness of Selma isn’t only because of its direction and strong script. The film is filled with terrific performances (particularly Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ) but it is David Oyelowo who commands the screen. He portrays King as the confident leader and great orator of history lessons, but also as a flawed man with doubts, humor, and fear. Oyelowo imparts King with an almost prophetic sense that his time is limited and thus his speeches must ring true for his time and for the future.
“I Can’t Breathe”: Ava DuVernay has become one of the most important directors to watch, not simply because of the popular headline-friendly fact that she’s a female, but because she’s a damn talented director whose directorial artistry can stand with any one of the year’s top filmmakers. There’s a lot to celebrate about Selma, but my fear is of that which often happens with films centered on black history in America—the story becomes chained to the past with a sense of completion. I implore viewers to remember that the struggle for racial equality didn’t end in 1969. For Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all the others with voices heard and unheard, the march goes on. Don’t view the end of Selma as a satisfying conclusion. See it as a rallying cry and a reminder of what can be set in motion through nonviolent means.