There’s a scene midway through Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” that’s sure to provoke reflection: It transitions from a conversation between Alabama Governor George Wallace and a police colonel discussing the assertion of “dominance” in Selma, and occurs when that’s carried out. As officers assault protestors, a man named Jimmie Lee Jackson seeks refuge in a diner along with his mother and grandfather. He’s not left alone. Police burst in, and while beating them one decides to shoot Jackson. The scene ends with him dying in his mother’s arms.
“Selma”, a near flawless historical drama directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, shifts between the political and the personal without feeling stilted or contrived. It’s often jarring, but it should be.
The moment the movie is built around—the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for voting rights—calls for the exact tone DuVernay creates: one where moments of personal sacrifice are never lost in history, but instead made more poignant by the consequences of what’s happening.
Her achievement is matched and complimented by David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King. He delivers King’s speeches with appropriate passion. As the frame expands with prominence, Oyelowo occupies the center with an inspiring physical presence, evoking the rhetoric of King with his body as well as his voice. Those scenes make watching his private strain with his wife (played by Carmen Ejojo) feel intimately human. In close-ups, we see Oyelowo confront King’s imperfections with a depth of emotion. He finds in King a person who found resonances in the lives of others to drive his passion for reform even as his work ate away at his private life.
The movie does not just capture King’s sacrifices, though. Careful attention is given to others on the frontline of the protests as well. The cast of King’s allies, which includes Oprah Winfrey, Common, and Wendell Pierce among many more, are resounding in their smaller roles. While a lot has been made about the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson), the movie isn’t about him. The historical LBJ was likely streamlined to put to the focus on the struggle of people who were on the front lines at Selma.
All things considered, that seems fine. There’s a lot more going on here, and focusing on the historical accuracy of one character would be a mistake—this is not a documentary, nor a biopic about LBJ. “Selma” is about the multitude of sacrifices made; it’s no one person’s story.
In no scene is that more clear than the apocalyptic bridge sequence, where a mass of protesters are brutalized by an over-armed police force. Compared to “12 Years a Slave,” another gut-wrenching movie that forced Americans to reflect on a racist history, the scenes of violence are filmed with more dynamism. Where Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” presented cruelty unflinchingly, DuVernay has to locate the faces of the suffering amid the fog of tear gas and chaos.
She uses a laundry list cinematic flourishes to do so, but nothing is ever done without a feel for the protestors’ suffering. When the event was shown on TV brutality was shrouded by the fog, but that doesn’t happen here. The end result is similar to what McQueen achieved: no matter how bad things get, your conscience will not let you look away.
When I went on a high-school field trip to see “Lincoln,” another historical drama that bears some similarities, students moaned about how boring it was (“too much talking”). I doubt kids who went on a field trip to see “Selma” had the same complaint. One of the reasons students said “Lincoln” left them jaded was the dearth of war scenes. The protesters are peaceful in Selma, but you never forget a war is going on.
Despite the enormity of the moment and the long list of historical figures, those who bled for the cause stay close to the heart of the movie. A related reason “Selma” can’t be called boring is its relevance: even though the events took place 50 years ago, it’s a reminder people are still bleeding.