Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, including
violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language
2 hr. 8 min.
Selma is a hard movie to watch. It forces the viewer to remember a time when African-Americans were treated with brutality and forced to endure entire lifetimes and generations being denied basic human decency and the rights guaranteed them under the Constitution of the United States. Director Ava DuVernay wants us to remember that past, but not as we might typically expect. Indeed, she uses Selma to give us a much bigger picture of what went on behind the scenes leading up to the famous Selma march for voting rights in the spring of 1965.
Any filmmaker knows that whoever deals with Martin Luther King Jr. deals with sacred ground. We’re used to seeing the passionate speaker. We’re used to remembering his legacy with a statue in Washington, D.C., and a federal holiday. We’re used to listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech.
DuVernay takes a different tack; gentle but honest, at times brutal but also thoughtful and willing to dig deep inside King’s mind and life. It opens with a contrast between King (David Oyelowo) as he receives his Nobel Peace Prize in 1963 and the terrible 16th Street Baptist Church bombing instigated by Klansmen in which four young girls were killed and an entire Birmingham church was leveled.
Those events triggered what happened in 1965: A group of African-American leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations made plans to push President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) to guarantee African-Americans the right to vote.
The planned march from Selma to Montgomery was dangerous for King and everyone concerned and caused much friction among black leaders over whether to push gently or go boldly, whether to join forces with their various factions or remain separate instigators.
Behind the scenes we watch King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), as she lives with the unspeakable presence of death, and endures the pressure of a wife and mother married to a famous leader, but also a man flawed and capable of infidelity.
DuVernay has the unenviable task of trying to decipher King’s political strategies and the messy events that led up to the Selma march. She must keep the viewer engaged at the same time that she documents the sometimes lengthy conversations between black leaders, between King and Johnson, and between King and his wife. And, of course, she must include some of the speeches King made famous during and after the march from Selma to Montgomery.
She’s fortunate to have the talents of Oyelowo and Ejogo, who bring to their roles of Martin and Coretta a sense of understated determination, love and passion. Wilkinson also performs admirably as the irascible Johnson, a man who didn’t mince words and who didn’t appreciate King pushing him to provide a law guaranteeing African-Americans the right to vote.
Most of all, DuVernay brings small history to light and deals subtly with the quiet, complicated underpinnings of men and women expressing their various views about the meaning of liberty. It wasn’t just King who inspired the Selma march, and DuVernay takes her time to make that point.
Selma is sometimes inspiring, sometimes slow and ponderous, sometimes quiet, sometimes dreadfully brutal, but DuVernay’s threads are sewn together skillfully and the ending is riveting. She raises questions. She undercuts sacred mythology. She’s willing to let the whole picture speak for itself.
With Selma, DuVernay asks us to think about how the struggle for human rights is still taking shape. The events of 2014 amply demonstrate what King himself mulled over in 1965. In what form does true liberty exist and, more important, what will it take for people to lay down their arms and live in peace? Selma reminds us that the struggle for equality has a long, bloody history that’s still a work in progress.