The release of Selma a little more than a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day was more than apropos—it was fortuitous. On the day the nation remembers its greatest champion of civil rights, anyone could drop by their local theater and see Selma, a film that artfully documents a critical point in King’s life and the civil rights movement in general. Civil rights in America have a long and complicated history with nothing clearly black or white. Selma perfectly captures the complexities of this time in the civil rights movement. The ambiguities are perfectly summed up in the narrative itself, which perfectly straddles the line between biopic and fiction.
Director Ava DuVernay’s film concerning the march from Selma to Montgomery may be one of the landmark films of the year. The first scene opens with King (David Oyewolo) reciting a speech in front of the mirror while having a very touching, intimate talk with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). The speech is for his soon to be awarded Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1964. It was during this time that King sought further legislation to prevent the continued discrimination still common for blacks in the South, even after his successful push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After King’s plea for these voter discrimination laws falls on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s deaf ears, he decides to go to Selma, Alabama for a Southern Christian Leadership Conference with local religious leader Reverend James Bevel (Common) for a grassroots activist effort to force Johnson’s hand. They forge a plan to march from Selma to Montgomery. This march not only finds opposition from an outside racist force but also from internal division and fractious debate. DuVernay shows these partially fictitious elements while grounding the film in real footage of the attacks by the police at Selma.
DuVernay’s mastery comes from the film’s realism, edifying the movement and King’s life without being overly moralistic like one has come to expect of Spielberg’s War Horse or Schindler’s List, while also still remaining partially a work of fiction. The gritty detail of his affair and partial estrangement from Coretta Scott King allows for these two to seem uncannily human, contrary to popular historical belief. The dialogue she and writer Paul Webb add to King’s voice seems to be incredibly fluid despite the fact that they weren’t able to get a hold of the rights for King’s speeches for the film. The rights are actually held by Steven Spielberg.
The only reservations that remain for this film are the two unnecessary opening scenes that don’t necessarily fit into the film and its otherwise cohesive narrative whole. Despite that, Selma deserves all of the praise it has and will accumulate and the lack of Academy Award nominations for the film is easily the biggest snub of the year (along with Joaquin Phoenix’s snub for Best Actor).
Featured Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures