Directed by Ava DuVernay
Produced by Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner
Written by Paul Webb
Released by Paramount Pictures
USA/UK. 127 min. Rated PG-13
With David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Dylan Baker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Corey Reynolds, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Nigel Thatch, and Oprah Winfrey
The wide release of Selma marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the first dramatic feature to bring in living color the concentrated events that led to that historic change. Filmed on the same locations where the real-life images were seared into the national consciousness, this engrossing, mostly accurate, epic is especially essential. The audience will likely include many who don’t get queasy at the sight of the first line of marchers heading across the (now) landmark bridge, named for the Confederate/KKK leader Edmund Pettus Bridge, and toward the bloody violence that awaits them. Selma will make the marchers’ actions unforgettable to a new generation.
The film opens with a career capstone that in a conventional biopic would be the climax: 36-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a transformed David Oyelowo) preparing to formally receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden. (Even without the rights to any of his speeches, the paraphrases and Oyelowo’s vocals effectively capture the soul and cadence of King’s oratory.) In what are recurring, movingly quiet scenes with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, who also played Mrs. King in HBO’s Boycott in 2001), their relationship is an anchor amidst the political storm. These scenes humanize the icons, though some of the stressful, personal challenges are compressed out of chronological order for heightened impact.
Meanwhile, the continuing challenges to Jim Crow discrimination are shown, including producer Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of Annie Lee Cooper’s reattempt to register to vote despite endless tests required by the court house registrar. The official had allowed only 242 of the county’s 15,000 black citizens to succeed. (The film makes the point several times that the voter rolls are also used for jury selection.)
After a brief detour to King’s frustrated negotiations for federal intervention on voting rights with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House (more on that controversy later), director Ava DuVernay powerfully hones in on King working with the local and national civil rights leaders and activists. They gather in Alabama, argue, and strategize during February and March on how to best create public pressure. The typing out on screen of the constant, shockingly intrusive FBI surveillance reports of Dr. King starts to ratchet up the tension.
In a large and impressive ensemble of African-American character actors, first stand-outs are actors more famous than the historical figures they portray, including Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams, Lorraine Touissant as suffrage activist Amelia Boynton, Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s attorney Fred Gray, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s performance as the older generation’s Bayard Rustin. (Colman Domingo looks strikingly like the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s deputy at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)
Others passionately represent the points of view of their constituencies to draw the audience further in like you-are-there, particularly Common’s portrayal of activist James Bevel, André Holland’s Reverend Andrew Young, and Corey Reynolds as Reverend C.T. Vivian. (The leaders’ headquarters are in local homes, getting the point across that they couldn’t stay in hotels and that they relied on grassroots support.)
Their camaraderie and the heated arguments capture the essence of the personalities and issues, such as SNCC’s resentments over the outside groups. But a separate peace meeting between Coretta and Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) diminishes its political significance between opposing tacticians by having, unfortunately, the feeling of perfunctory historical accuracy.
On a scale much larger than her earlier indie film collaborations with cinematographer Bradford Young, DuVernay stylistically distinguishes between the three attempts to get to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, the first of which stunned the nation with its horrific violence. In the years before the 24/7 cable news cycle, it was electrifying that networks broke into programming to air the beatings by Southern deputies, cheered on by bystanders. (Reconstructions of the actual black-and-white press photographs that had a tremendous impact on public opinion, and Congress, are integrated in.)
Afterwards, King sent out a nationwide call for religious people of conscience to join the marchers, though dialogue confusingly calls them all “priests,” and DuVernay, too, obviously puts a colorfully attired, bearded Greek Orthodox patriarch arm-in-arm up front, who was not so visible in archival photographs. While the film usefully clarifies King’s prayerful “Turn Around Tuesday” that was fraught and confusing to the public at the time, the fatal attack on a white supporter is clearly shown to galvanize the country, more so than the earlier deaths of African Americans.
Some of the controversy over the portrayal of LBJ is attributable to Tom Wilkinson’s restrained and oddly cold performance, which doesn’t match Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning embodiment of the president as a physically imposing and wily manipulative politician in All The Way (which will be re-created in an upcoming HBO mini-series). The LBJ Presidential Library has unfortunately and unnecessarily sent out a call to its scholars to criticize the film and to defend his legitimate legacy for getting the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Yet the defenders’ citation of a January 15, 1965 telephone conversation between the two men ironically supports the film’s contention that Johnson tried to convince King to wait until his full plate of other Great Society measures were pushed through Congress, according to the transcript of the call.
Those who criticize the film’s portrayal of the president as unhelpful to the marchers downplay a key scene of LBJ confronting the obstinate Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, also in a surprisingly controlled performance) in the Oval Office. Johnson presses him to just let the Negroes vote already. Also, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) is seen as more concerned that King is, as Hoover insists, a sexual degenerate. He was actually fiercely and obsessively convinced that King was a Communist. Further, no historian has turned up any evidence to support the film’s nasty assertion that LBJ spitefully authorized Hoover to release bugged hotel bedroom tapes to Mrs. King (which were actually sent to her many months earlier).
Unlike the definitive documentary series Eyes on the Prize that emphasized how songs were an integral part of the struggle, the music here is primarily the spirituals that nourished Rev. King’s spirit. (There’s a sweetly moving scene of him calling Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to ask her to sing to him.) Not until the end of the credits, when theaters will be empty, is a marchers’ chorus heard, from the Smithsonian Institution archive. These historic anthems come after John Legend and Common’s “Glory,” which deals more with contemporary race relations. This is a missed opportunity to rally for more voter turnout since the Voting Rights Act has recently been truncated by the Supreme Court, and to honor the strong, inspiring, unforgettable people portrayed on screen who sacrificed everything for that right.