After sitting through the dreck that was American Sniper, I really needed a movie like Selma. Both films are very similar, and being released at the same time makes the comparison of the two films even greater. Both films are about a figure in American history, one historic and one contemporary, both detail the politics and social situation of the time they were set, and both attempted to leave an impression on their audience. While American Sniper was all about chaos and using a morally questionable figure, Selma was all about using a figure who is commonly depicted as messianic and making him human.
Selma follows one chapter of the Civil Rights Movement, following the trials of the 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama. The film follows Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his fellow activists as they plan and orchestrate the marches. This faces opposition from the racist police and politicians of Alabama, as well as the challenges from getting national support from President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
There were also some expertly staged moments as well. One particular shot I loved was one with King and Johnson having an argument in the Oval Office with a portrait of George Washington between the two men. It’s a sign of how one president crusaded for liberty and how another is being called to do the same. There’s also a moment where King and company are in jail and the source of light is behind King. King’s face is almost entirely in shadow, but we’re able to make out enough of his features, suggesting that he’s still a present figure even though the bigoted law enforcement of Selma has put him away.
The film is full of many similar sequences as the one above, which are all the more depressing due to how relevant they are today. We see a woman played by Oprah beaten by cops for trying to defend an old man they were assaulting. We see an unarmed black man gunned down by cops in a restaurant after he and his family fled a march disrupted by the cops. Then comes the first march. To me, that first march is one of the best sequences on film from last year.
It works because DuVernay, the actors, and everyone involved in the production do not want to play it safe. They are not going to say “you know, maybe that cop felt it was right to use that bat covered in barbed wire against the people peacefully marching across that bridge.” No, they’re making it clear that this is all inherently wrong, and they want you to understand how terrible such a thing happening is. You see men and women knocked down by cops on horses, you see them beaten with batons and sprayed with tear gas, and you see them struggling to get away. It’s all played for the terror that it is, and the viewer will empathize with it more because events like that are happening in places like Ferguson, Missouri.
Of course, with such a serious film, it’s not without its share of controversy. Many people objected to how the film portrayed Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson is portrayed as unwilling to help, wanting to focus on other issues first and then get around to the Voting Act. Historically, he was on board the whole time, so people had issues with this portrayal. Personally, I think it’s not a big deal.
First, DuVernay admitted she was more concerned with telling a story than being completely accurate. Johnson’s portrayal was the only real change and everything else was portrayed close to real life. Second, the end result was the same, so even if it was a bit of cinematic embellishment, it’s still within the confines of history. Third, who cares? Historical films change the facts all the time, some for story telling purposes, others due to the limitations of film making. Most viewers didn’t care that Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club was a raging homophobe in the movie when the real one was rumored to be bisexual, nor did they care whenBraveheart was reported to be wildly inaccurate.
Why is this the movie where people are suddenly flipping out over how they portrayed one person? It’s not like they portrayed Johnson as a racist or an old miser who needed to learn about love and compassion. They portrayed Johnson as a man who is acting as U.S. president at a time where there’s a war in Vietnam, conflict with the Soviet Union, widespread poverty in the U.S., and a Civil Rights movement. It’s clear he wants to help, but he has a lot to balance and doesn’t think the Voting Act is as necessary. Sure, that might not be what happened, but this is a realistic change that I can accept it and accept the fact that the same result happened regardless of how much the film changed.
What the film did change that most movies about Dr. King don’t often show is that it made Coretta Scott King just as important a character. Played by Carmen Ejogo, Coretta exists to humanize Dr. King and show the dangers of what this movement means. She reminds him that his family and life are at risk, she tells him that there are certain compromises he might have to make (in this case, working with Malcolm X), and she is also there to keep him grounded. This works for the better because it shows Dr. King as a man and not so much as a messianic figure that most writers, filmmakers, and pundits try to make him out to be (how many times have you heard “If Dr. King were alive today, I think…”?) but rather a man of faith who got involved in a movement he believed in and wanted to inspire real change with.
Selma’s a really good movie, and I wish it would get a little more attention. Everything is executed so well in this movie, from the writing to the acting to the direction. It’s something that’s going to kick start many careers and increase visibility for most of them. I’m sure DuVernay and Oyelowo will receive more opportunities, and I hope they do. Everything is done so well, and for this film to have most of its achievements ignored feels like such a shame. However, I believe this is one of the more accessible films to the public. It’s PG-13, meaning it can be shown in classrooms, and it’s also got a lot of recognizable people in the film to make viewers come see it. Selma will have its audience and its relevancy, and I know it’s probably going to work out in the film’s favor after this is all done.