Focusing on one specific period in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Selma” is one of the best American films of the year — and indeed perhaps the best — precisely because it does not simply show what Dr. King did for America in his day; it also wonders explicitly what we have left undone for America in ours.
Most Oscar-season end-of-year films about American history creak and groan into theaters like mannequins wrapped in grade-school civics lessons: Blank in the eyes, hollow on the inside, handcufffed and hobbled by the kind of history that gets written by the winners. Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” — screened in its entirety at the AFI Film Festival Tuesday as a last-minute change from an originally planned 30-minute preview — is the exact opposite of the noble, immobile sepia-toned biopics that usually define the Awards season.
Instead, it’s vital, funny, human and complex, with British actor David Oyelowo playing King, as Paul Webb’s script follows the icon through the tactics and truths of a historic civil rights protest march King led from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in 1965.
The march was to protest and draw attention to the systematic and deliberate disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, a crime of power that happened long before King’s rise to prominence and continues as recently as Election Day 2014; it’s a story of the American past and the role a leader played in changing his era, but this isn’t the usual dry recounting of facts and soft-focused hero-building. It’s far more, and far better, than that.
DuVernay’s previous film, “Middle of Nowhere,” was a similar mix of the personal and the political, following a couple’s fight to stay in love after one of them enters the prison system. Yet as excellent as “Middle of Nowhere” was, it only hinted at the majestic, wide-screen power she brings to bear in almost every frame here.
DuVernay creates “Selma’s” striking visual grammar with the substantial and significant help of cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”), and Young’s camerawork perfectly captures everything from the massed power of a group on the march to the quiet pain of betrayal and forgiveness between a man and a woman with equal artistry and facility. Webb’s screenplay is also superb: not just intelligent but emotionally wise, with no small amount of very real humor even as it shows us very real horrors.
Oyelowo’s performance would be impressive enough if it merely recreated the icon we now revere as perfectly as he does through a variety of methods — the cadence of the speeches, the gestures made to the crowd, the political theater of and principled belief in fearlessness and compassion as the only counter to violence and ignorance. But Oyelowo, and Webb’s screenplay, also give us a rich, rewarding portrait of King as a man, one capable of mistakes, self-doubt and hurt. A scene between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) where she not only confronts him about his infidelities but also puts them into aching, ruined context is a masterclass in two-person scenework.
“Selma” also makes no bones about the realities and hard work of politicking, whether in King’s meetings with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) or in his attempts to try and win over the young black activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who were on the ground in Selma long before King and who worry he’ll overshadow their efforts. Much like “Milk,” another great American biopic that mixed the personal, the political and the present tense, “Selma” recognizes how activists have to be keep an eye not only on their obvious enemies but also on other activists who should logically be allies.
“Selma” does have a few loose threads poking out of its grand tapestry. Wilkinson is miscast; his Johnson is too refined, too restrained. The film also could do a better job of marking its timeline: how long King was in Selma, the days between marches, and so on. The film’s final credits are also far clumsier than the skillful, subtle and strong film that comes before them, presenting a montage of footage we’ve already seen over a painfully earnest and square-cornered song by Common (who also acts in the film), both seeming as if they’re trying too hard to use their three minutes to recap and recontextualize the entire film.
These are minor quibbles, though, in the face of so much that works so well to make “Selma” as good as it is. The ensemble is broad, deep and uniformly excellent, including Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”), Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People”), producer Oprah Winfrey, a superb Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, and many, many more.
DuVernay and Webb are unafraid to show the King that our more convenient histories also gloss over — an advocate not just for racial equality but also economic equality, someone who asked how the American government could waste millions of dollars and thousands of lives to promote democracy in Vietnam but wouldn’t help its own citizens exercise their democratic right to vote in Alabama. As King asks out of doubt and despair while in jail, a black man can now sit at the same lunch counter as a white man, but what if he doesn’t have the money to buy lunch due to poverty, or if he can’t even read the menu because he never got a proper education?
At one point, Oyelowo’s King states that he will no longer tolerate being led astray into “the dark corners of the halls of power.” It’s a turn of phrase that speaks to our time as much as it does his. Voter suppression in 2014 may be more genteel — in Texas, new laws demand “approved” photo ID from voters; in Kansas voters now have to show “proof of citizenship”; and in North Carolina, early voting has been cut short even as same-day registration to vote has been eliminated — but it is just as real, and just as racist, as the billyclubs and bullwhips used in Selma in the ’60s.
During the final march from Selma to Montgomery, DuVernay cuts from her recreation of the march to archival footage of the actual march, and what sounds like a disconnect brings the film truly home: King wasn’t some saint who lived above normal Americans; he was a man who walked alongside them, and his achievements are all the more inspiring, and intimidating, because he was as flawed and strong, as vulnerable and powerful as we are.
Most American dramas about politics are made to comfort your complacency and soothe you to sleep; the best thing about “Selma” is how Ms. DuVernay’s version and vision of Dr. King dares to send you out from the theater and into the world awake and aware.