It is alarmingly strange that there has never before been a theatrical feature film on such a great life as that of Martin Luther King, Jr before Ava DuVernay’s Selma. A character study of the man who had a dream and a period piece of the United States in the 1960s at the same time, DuVernay deserves way more credit than the press accrues to her for this eloquently made and angering depiction of logged events. In the duration of two hours, she manages to both incite the audience as well as get across in full spirit the message of King’s movement, which is furthered to no end by the powerful performance by David Oyelowo, a British actor who excels in capturing the modulations in voice and the layers of character that was the man King. Lending itself out as a sombre megaphone for the treatment of blacks in America, the shocking irony of getting snubbed for most nominations by the Academy stands testament to the fact that the war was not won with King, and we are still participants in some way.
A middle-aged black woman, well dressed, walks into the registration office in Selma, Alabama and attempts to get herself certified as a registered voter. It is clear from her conversation with the officer that this is not her first time, but it is equally clear that this is not going to be the time she gets her rights approved. After the shaming harassment she walks away with a look of sorrow in her eyes. Selma is a film that dodges the temptation to fill the limelight with events that are famous and retold in every history lecture, but makes the conscious decision to linger on the smaller, more intimate moments that are as it turns out, perhaps more powerful than the former kind. This sequence with Oprah Winfrey as the middle aged lady is enough to declare to the viewer that though King has won the Peace Prize, and the ‘I have a dream’ speech is done and dusted; the struggle still thrives as a day-to-day occurrence. Selma has three short sequences that pave way for the story and set the stage for the time at which we delve into history. The movie is set in the time immediately following Martin Luther King Jr’s international recognition and receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, and catches a tired King, who although burdened by the threats to his life and those close to him, cannot lay down the baton and is compelled by his spirit to push forward, one measured step at a time. That is indeed the most accurate description of King’s methods and strategies – measured – for he does not lose sight of the endgame, and he values the lives of his people too much to make a risky move.
The slice of history that Selma decides to present its audience with could not be more appropriate, for it doesn’t bother too much with the epoch-making time of his career, rather it is set in the aftermath, as testament to the harsh reality that nothing is righted so easily; that an award or international recognition is not sufficient and the attitudes of people are not changed overnight. This is all the more important since the way history is recited in classrooms makes it seem as though King’s award was the epilogue to a massive struggle, and all was right afterward. Well, this is not so the case: prejudices are still at large and although the paper reads equal rights for all, it could not be farther from the truth. King understands that the war is not done, and rushes after his ceremony to locate the stage for the next limb of the movement. The stage that he thus chooses is Selma in Alabama County, where the treatment of blacks is most degrading, where the governor and the police all publicly stand in way of their constitutional rights. It is also the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, also recounted with unexpectedly shocking and resounding terror that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, where four little girls were made victims of a terrible attack. The execution of this one scene more than resounded their mistreatment and shatters the perfect picture that holds us disillusioned. I can safely admit that among the many heartrending moments captured by Selma this one was one of the most bloodcurdling, and even the second time around, the scene does not lose its gravity. In those two minutes that we listen to their conversation, the director makes us care for them and then in a brilliant and tragic turn, stops our hearts for a brief second once we realize the tone to be continued throughout. The cinematography at the same time is perfect: a clever mingling of both cool tones of blue as well as the yellow of history that seems much clearer in this one. The humans also seem to stand out in crisp fashion, offering a calligraphic picture that complements the Civil Rights movement itself.
The film also makes use of rather important personalities and events that transpired during the time of the Selma movement to shadow King’s character in contrast to theirs. One such delight came in the form of Malcolm X who discusses with Coretta King the possibilities of a complementary movement that would further the cause. While it is indeed notable that this extremist leader received the cinematic treatment almost 20 years prior to King, it is also hard to not take notice of the excellent handling of the scene, with the short minutes being used for the subtle portrayal of Malcolm and at the same time the strength possessed by Coretta. It is through such other catalysts that we are shown King as a mere man with a drive rather than a god. He was in strong disagreement with Malcolm’s method of revolution and was truly riled up at the suggestion of their co-operation. Another effective inclusion was that of J Edgar, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time, a revolutionary who held close to zero respect for civilian rights and was the other side of the Snowden argument. But this issue is not the reason he is included, it is rather the ropes tightening around King’s hands and the political powers trying to make him dance to their strings. While Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar was definitely more explorative of his character, this toned down portrayal by Dylan Baker seems more fitting to the historic tone of this biopic. While it may seem like baiting cameos on reading, the inclusion of these characters actually elevate the story, knowing that all these other historic forces (both negative and positive) were working and influencing King’s actions at the time transcends the genre archetype of a character biopic to an entry from the diary of time.
A historic log of such a far-reaching struggle deserves and can only work centered around a strong and charismatic performance. That is exactly what David Oyelowo brings to this film otherwise not as big on characters as it is on the proclamation of historic injustice. The only other films I have seen David in are Rise of the Planet of Apes and Interstellar, in both of which he rendered brief characters that could not do much with the time accorded to them. He is surely a face to be remembered now as through Selma the man has proven the excellence with which he can embody the spirit of a character, given enough room. What he does with King’s character, just as what DuVernay does with the direction of actual events, is not to trace the lines strictly and in precision with reality, but to imbibe the soul while lending it their own inspiration and style. While this deviation remains true, it does not appear jarring for a moment, as every tweak and detail touched on works to perfection, and makes us feel the whole smorgasbord of emotions from white rage to weeping sorrow. Indeed, I have not felt as shaken my so many scenes as I was in this film. It is incredible to think that after stark alterations were made to the language of King’s many memorable speeches, the same message still reaches out to invoke the humanity in all of us. There is not a shade of the actor in the character that appears on screen, it is Martin Luther King Jr through and through. The subtleties and intricate emotions, especially when it came to his relationship with his wife, were brought to surface in a remarkable manner. He is equally effective in King’s moments of weakness as well as his evocative sermons and clarion-calls, with a fierce voice tinged with a smooth Southern accent that is both assertive and consoling at the same time. In fact his voice, or at least its manner of convincing people, reminded me a great deal of Kevin Spacey’s brilliant Frank Underwood in House of Cards. The film is not all about the one man, but more about the struggles that his people were put through: his wife played quite well by Carmen Ejogo represents the daily harassment his family was subject to, while also catering to a feminist confidence, actually going out and working for the cause herself. The many other characters such as John Lewis, Jimmi Lee Jackson also break out the tears in volumes with the atrocities realized on screen. There is an undercurrent of faith and religion to the movement, just as King himself was a man of prayer, all making the tragic events more pensive and thought-provoking.
At the time of the movement, the President of the United States was Lyndon B Johnson, who to many was shaded in the wrong light: as a man disinterested in the movement and at some points even against King’s ideologies. While I may not be the best person to comment on the factual background of this film, I do not judge this film on the accuracy it maintains with the events that actually transpired. Such a portrayal was perhaps necessary to hold cohesive this slice of history that we are asked to peer into, a slice so brilliantly executed that it is hard to attempt at correction. It is horrifying to think on the Academy’s snubbing of this film as it is evidence enough that the issue King took on is not yet resolved. Selma is everything a period piece (or biopic) should be; as is David’s King everything a leader should be portrayed as – a tired man who places the burdens of his brother before his own. There is truly no other film that will leave you rattled and at the same time horrified at the proximity of these events, occurring not more than 50 years ago. This is indeed a film to be taught to children everywhere, and heartbreaking scenes such as that of Bloody Sunday will leave a mark on them, a lesson never to be forgotten: of past atrocities not too long ago and yet not completely extinct.