Five stars. Rated PG-13, laudably but a bit generously, despite considerable grim violence, dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.9.15
The images are sickening, their motivation heinous.
Only two decades removed from the post-WWII revelations of how atrociously German-based Jewish citizens had been treated by their own countrymen — up to brutal slaughter — the United States was turning an equally blind eye toward the similarly appalling behavior of Alabama cops who, protected by the imprimatur of authority, assaulted and killed their black neighbors with the gleeful enthusiasm of jack-booted Nazi thugs.
If that isn’t sufficient irony, consider this: Much of America first learned of these contemptible circumstances on March 7, 1965 — remembered, to this day, as our own “Bloody Sunday” — when ABC interrupted an evening movie to show live footage of peaceful black citizens being tear-gassed and beaten by state and local cops in Selma, Ala. The film in question? The television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg.
The source of all this white-cracker rage?
The audacity of these black citizens, who insisted on exercising their right to vote. The situation was particularly pernicious in Alabama, and notably in Selma, where only 130 of its roughly 15,000 black residents had successfully become voters. Most had been foiled by local registrars who routinely demanded answers to absurdly difficult civics questions.
Director Ava DuVernay opens her riveting new film, Selma, with just such an encounter. A quietly dignified Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) makes what we realize is the most recent of many such trips to the county registrar’s office, only to be thwarted anew by a sneering white clerk who, irritated by her correct answers to his first two questions, responds with an impossible third.
It’s a brilliantly clever prologue by DuVernay and scripter Paul Webb, and not merely for the unsettling calm with which the scene is staged: the immediate implication that this is disenfranchised business as usual. DuVernay also secures calmly understated performances from both actors: the determined but wearily pragmatic Winfrey on one side, the pugnacious Clay Chappell on the other.
It’s a landmark cinematic moment: a scene destined to be memorialized, and oft resurrected, for decades to come.
And it succinctly depicts the fetid racist swamp into which Martin Luther King Jr. waded in early 1965, fresh from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and having been named “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine, which dubbed him “the American Gandhi.”
DuVernay’s film covers a short interval in King’s career, beginning with the September 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four girls and instantly galvanized the Civil Rights movement; and concluding with the events in the winter of early 1965, which led to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
This 18-month snapshot is a shrewd move on the part of DuVernay and Webb, reflecting the reality that no single film could adequately depict King’s entire life. This is similar to the approach taken by Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which concentrated solely on that president’s activities in January 1865, as he struggled to secure passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Which, needless to say, had the similar goal of rights for black citizens.
While the story being told in Selma is by turns enlightening, riveting and horrifying, the film gains its grace and authority from British actor David Oyelowo’s astonishing starring performance. It’s a deeply layered and wholly engaging tour-de-force of acting, as fully immersive as Daniel Day-Lewis’ work in the aforementioned Lincoln.
DuVernay and Oyelowo convey King’s charisma, intelligence and innate nobility without putting the man on a pedestal; he also has his doubts, failings and vulnerability. Webb doesn’t shy from details that lesser projects might find uncomfortable; indeed, they’re confronted head-on, which merely amplifies our admiration of Oyelowo’s performance.
One particularly telling scene between King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), concerns his philandering: a subtle exchange of dialogue prompted by their having received the infamous FBI surveillance tape of sexual grunting that threatened to “reveal” him as “an evil, abnormal beast.” The scene is taut, as we wonder how Coretta will handle this latest atrocity, in light of what she knows about her husband; Oyelowo and Ejogo are quietly electrifying, as husband and wife retreat to different corners, each wounded but unwilling to let this incident interfere with the important work at hand.
This scene — and many others — gain an additional snap of authenticity from our knowledge that King and his followers were surveilled constantly by the FBI, acting under orders from the odious J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker, appropriately loathsome).
Indeed, Webb had access to the 17,000-page FBI file that traced both the banal and decisive moments of King’s life, and DuVernay further collaborated with longtime civil rights leaders John Lewis and Andrew Young: now career politicians, and both young men during the events depicted here.
DuVernay also employs a clever gimmick that suggests the verbatim authenticity of many dialogue exchanges. We become seduced by this implied veracity, to the point of believing that all the dialogue is genuine.
That’s the hallmark of an ingenious script: one that persuades us of rigorous historical accuracy, even when common sense suggests dramatic shading.
Webb’s narrative is populated by numerous villains, both firmly entrenched, upper-echelon politicians and ground-level monsters. The former include Baker’s Hoover and, most particularly, Tim Roth’s smug and unapologetically evil depiction of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Chief among the latter is Stan Houston’s grimly vicious reading of Sheriff Jim Clark.
Then there’s the fence-sitter: President Lyndon B. Johnson, depicted with blunt, often profane candor by the always outstanding Tom Wilkinson. As suggested here, Johnson makes no secret of his willingness to parlay with King, because the dignified reverend is the preferred “safe” face of the civil rights movement: a valued alternative to the far more combustible and potentially violent Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch).
Although Wilkinson does much to convey the dilemma that Johnson faced — the legitimate fear that moving too quickly on civil rights could result in a backlash akin to what prompted the Civil War, a century earlier — there’s no question that DuVernay and Webb subtly indict the president’s behavior. Historians have suggested that this is unfair, and perhaps a flaw on this film’s part; that aside, Oyelowo and Wilkinson deliver several riveting debates as events move inexorably to the impending march.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong. Cuba Gooding Jr. has a brief but memorable role as civil rights attorney Fred Gray, already famous for having represented Rosa Parks, and now constantly at King’s side. Martin Sheen is just as compelling in an equally fleeting part, as Federal District Judge Frank M. Johnson, who issues a key ruling on the marchers’ rights.
Giovanni Ribisi is quietly persuasive as Johnson’s civil rights consultant, Lee C. White; and Wendell Pierce stands out within King’s inner circle, as the Rev. Hosea Williams.
Production designer Mark Friedberg evokes a strong sense of the era and its Alabama setting, and cinematographer Bradford Young lends impressive atmosphere, particularly with his staging shots of Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Composer Jason Moran delivers a subtle score, reserving orchestral motifs for particularly dramatic moments, and otherwise relying on evocatively inserted source music and protest songs. One telling scene occurs as King, needing some spiritual solace, makes a late-night phone call to legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (played here by Ledisi Young), who obliges with a full-throated hymn.
Selma is a powerful and deeply important cinematic document: a depiction of horrific events that we would do well to remember, particularly in light of recent headlines. History aside, it’s also a must-see for Oyelowo’s stirring performance.
But be prepared: It’s a gut-wrencher.