There is perilous risk when creating films about great figures in history, one fraught with the dangers of being overly pious in their reverence, or creating yet another sweeping, Oscar-baity drama about the great life and times of another human being. When biopics work well, they truly can be great, but when they fail, it’s often due to clumsily fumbling the dramatic elements, or because of trying to capture too much on film and thus watering down the picture.
I often thought back to the unfortunate failure that was Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom as I watched Selma, in no small part because writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay succeeded in every way that that film failed. Mandela tried too hard to capture the entire life of Nelson Mandela, far too difficult a task for a 120 minute film. Rather than being a pure biopic, Selma is instead a snapshot in time, a crystal-clear, unflinching, beautiful and tragic and wonderful look at the two or so months in of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work in Selma, Alabama in 1965. It encapsulates some of the most critical moments in the American Civil Rights Movement’s history — King’s arrest in Selma, the first March from Selma to Montgomery, which was met with horrific violence by law enforcement and hastily deputized white men, the second March, known as “Turnaround Tuesday”, and the final March that culminated with King’s famous “How Long, Not Long” speech. Peppered throughout the film are the numerous meetings between King (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), as well as a variety of interactions between King and his fellow activists and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).
Selma is an amazing depiction of that time, even if it sometimes feels unbalanced as a film. As a picture of history, though? It’s nearly flawless, if that makes sense. It’s two hours of terrific acting across the board, of quiet, contemplative, emotionally exhausting history, seamlessly and artfully assembled by a director (DuVernay) with an astonishing ability to craft a deeply intimate scenes without resorting to cloying artifice or treacle. Does the film bog itself down at times? Yes, at times it seems to drag as it builds between capital-M-Moments. But it’s not an action film, it’s not a monument to a man, it’s rather a monument to a movement and that movement is captured with amazing deftness. DuVernay does this by focusing closely on the people in each scene, so closely and quietly that you feel like you’re in the room with them. The camera becomes less a lens and more a silent spectator, and as you witness the emotionality and heartfelt determination of each role player, it feels like you could brush up against them.
This is only made possible by two other elements — a smart, honest script and a terrific collection of performances. The script doesn’t flinch from showing the darkness that they faced, as well as the dissension within King’s own ranks and the frustration often felt by his dogged determination to pursue a nonviolent course. Stephan James gives a poignant performance as a young John Lewis (who is now in his 13th term as US Congressman), a leader of the SNCC who is at times at odds with King’s methods and trying to find his way in the movement. The other internal conflict comes from Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King, an almost thankless role since much of her internal drama is based around fear of retaliation and frustration with King’s strange combination of pacifism mixed with fatalism. Compounded by allegations of infidelity and a near-constant barrage of threatening phone calls (likely proffered by the FBI), she is a bastion of strength and the scenes between her and Oyelowo are remarkable. Additional credit is due to Wilkinson’s brilliant portrayal of a frustrated LBJ who can’t get King to play ball with his agenda, and a hawk-eyed portrayal of the venal George Wallace by Tim Roth who, despite being a champion of the poor, refuses to budge an inch when it comes to black voting rights. It’s rounded out by a parade of immensely talented actors who make up King’s inner circle, including Wendell Pierce, Common, Omar Dorsey, and Colman Domingo.
But the film is led by an unbelievable performance by David Oyelowo who sinks into the role of King in a fashion that few actors portraying historical characters are able. He simply becomes the character, in mannerism and movement, inflection and intonation. He is honest and proud and fearful and angry and frustrated and self-doubting and determined, and each distinct trait is laid bare with quiet grace. His interactions with Wilkinson’s LBJ are absolutely one of the film’s highlights, as is his powerful and exhilarating interplay with his companions and the people of Alabama.
Yet the final piece in this puzzle that must be noted is this: DuVernay has assembled a wonderful cast, used some great camera work and cinematography, and worked off a solid script to create this deeply intimate and powerful portrait of this moment in time. But this moment in time was not all speeches and quiet interludes. It was also a period of fear, of terror at the hands of the government, and of harrowing, horrific violence. That violence and corruption pervades the film — either the threat of it, which weighs down every moment in what Coretta Scott King calls a “fog of death”, or in actuality. When Sheriff Jim Clark unleashes his deputies upon the first marchers, it is the stuff of nightmares, and the director let’s us have it full in the face. Beatings, whippings, screaming and terror — it is not gratuitous, but it is unflinching and unhesitant. There’s a horrible poetry to the direction that makes you unable to turn away even as you shrink back from the brutality on the screen.
Selma is one of the finest depictions of the American Civil Rights Movement that I’ve ever seen, and it does so without centering itself on a white protagonist (something that so, so many films about minorities in history have been guilty of). It does so instead by carefully choosing its moments and then gathering together a collection of actors who are clearly fully invested in their roles and in the whole cloth of the film. It staggers sometimes when it slows down, but the performances, dialogue, and the overwhelming sense of simply being there bring it quickly back to its feet. As a result it becomes a truly wonderful picture of a harrowing and frighting, but ultimately uplifting and powerful moment in our history.