The process to bring “Selma” to the big screen began in 2008. Since then “Selma” has had director changes, producer changes, cast changes, and script rewrites. But now it has finally hit theaters with director Ava DuVernay at the helm. As expected the film has generated a lot of buzz, critical acclaim, and its share of controversy. Going into the film I was excited to see how well the story would be told. I was also cautious and concerned about how the historical liberties I’ve been reading about would effect the film’s impact.
“Selma” doesn’t set out to be a comprehensive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead it focuses on the events surrounding the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I appreciated the film’s disregard for the standard biopic blueprint. MLK’s entire life isn’t crammed into one story. This movie has a very specific story to tell, yet it allows us to glean much about this influential figure. We learn of his motivations, his faults, his fears, and his uncertainties all through observation. We also learn of his bravery, his sacrifice, and his determination.
This chronicle of the Selma march starts with Martin Luther King Jr’s (David Oyelowo) desire to secure true and unhindered voting rights for black Americans. We see him going to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and urging him to give immediate attention to the matter. We see the festering racial tensions in the south particularly in and around the town of Selma, Alabama. We see King visiting Selma with his fellow SCLC members. He speaks in churches and spreads the message of change through peace and offers encouragement to the black community. We also see the violent backlash against the peaceful protests – something that weighs heavily on Dr. King’s heart.
“Selma” has the big showcase scenes that you would expect, but DuVernay also gives us the smaller more intimate moments. These personal strokes paint a much more detailed portrait of King. There’s a fun scene where he and his SCLC buddies arrive at a female friend’s house for breakfast. It’s a great scene filled with playful banter and jests. There is also a piercing scene between King and his wife Coretta (exquisitely played by Carmen Ejogo). It’s a low-key but intense family moment that DuVernay films with subtle but brutal honesty. We get a number of these touches which are much more than just emotional gimmickry.
And you can’t have a discussion about “Selma” without talking about the performance of David Oyelowo. The British actor loses himself in the role of Dr. King. He is a great match in terms of physical appearance, but he gives us so much more. I was blown away by the steadiness of his voice and his near perfect accent. He also conveys the passion and charisma that I imagine from Dr. King. We see this most in his speeches/sermons at a church in Selma. Oyelowo’s performance is graceful, committed, and nuanced.
“Selma” has so many important things to say and it hits head-on the disgraceful racism that was prevalent at the time. It’s a film that could be taken as an important historical reflection. Unfortunately it loses a portion of its credibility due its historical liberties. I generally stay away from controversies surrounding historical inaccuracies, but for me “Selma” genuinely suffers due to decisions made by DuVernay and writer Paul Webb. It has nothing to do with the racism and violence shown in Selma. All of that was shown with such power and potency. Instead it’s the decision to cast Lyndon B. Johnson as an antagonist, something that simply wasn’t true.
History has shown that Johnson had King had disagreements. But they also had a deep respect and worked together to accomplish the shared goal of equality. Even some close to King have come out to defend Johnson from the film’s characterization. The movie shows Johnson as an obstructionist who grows more and more annoyed with King’s efforts towards equal voting rights. But it doesn’t stop there. The film stops just short of calling Johnson a racist. It also shows Johnson callously using the FBI to hurt King and his family. Many have said this never happened and it depicts Johnson as cold and pernicious. And when he does finally put voting rights legislation forward, the film shows him to be motivated more by his legacy than doing what’s right.
But why did this hurt the film for me? Historical inaccuracies happen all the time in biography movies. For me it hurts the film because it strips it of a potentially strong and relevant message. I mean which would have more impact and resonance, the movie’s characterization of an obstructive and self-serving sitting white President or the true depiction of a white and black man standing side-by-side working towards true and meaningful change? The power and relevance of that message in the current climate is undeniable. Why did DuVernay choose the direction she did? Some of her comments about the making of the film may shed light on her motivations. Regardless it is a frustrating decision that seems unnecessary.
Sadly the “controversy” surrounding “Selma” isn’t without some merit. A lot of people, particularly younger viewers, may look at the film and take it entirely as historical fact. While that may not be completely true, the majority of the movie serves as a forceful and unflinching reminder of the faith and courage shown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the persecuted black community of that day. The film forces us to experience the undeserved attitudes of hatred commonly thrown at black Americans at the time. It also raises our spirits by showing the determination of a brave community unwilling to sit by and have their rights trampled. The true story of Selma, Alabama has an inspirational power. “Selma” the movie also has that power except when it wanders off into its own revisionist world.