It’s tempting for a film based on real events to take the easy way out. I’m not speaking of the simplification of complex people and events, or tweaking historical figures to portray them in a more positive (or negative) light. That is to be expected of fiction. What makes Selma special, among many other things, is its sincere commitment to both mental rigour and visual dynamism; it proves that history written with lightning does not have to be glib or cloying, nor does it have to blindly and blandly follow a straight line to a predestined moment of uplift. Selma is determined to earn all of its highs and lows by skillfully balancing the grit and the gloss in an example of Hollywood filmmaking approaching its noblest aspirations.
Explaining what I mean by this starts with the fact that I haven’t even mentioned that Selma is nominally a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. It certainly is that in one sense, but it’s also about a great many other things, chief among them the exhausting nature of activism. Selma picks up more than a year after the “I Have a Dream” speech, with Dr. King (David Oyelowo) returning from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize to help organize opposition to Alabama’s discriminatory voter registration laws, culminating in a 50-mile march from rural Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.
What the film does, however, is show the gradual, gruelling path to arrive at that last sentence being printed in a million history textbooks – the wheeling and dealing with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his sympathetic administration, the squabbles over tactics with activist leaders of every stripe, and the threat of violence looming at every turn. Director Ava DuVernay is especially diligent in spelling out the causes and effects of the violence in Selma during the spring of 1965, turning these incidents into small, tragic arcs of their own. Two of the film’s most powerful sequences come from the flashpoints that pushed Selma into the public consciousness (or as King astutely notes, the “white consciousness”): the murder of protester Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) by Alabama state troopers and the events of “Bloody Sunday,” the first attempt to launch a Selma march without the blessing or protection of the federal government.
Secretly an ensemble piece masquerading as an MLK biopic, Selma gets at something that’s both specific and essential. “Civil rights” is a slowly creeping river with many eddies, but DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb use one very famous – and yet still largely overlooked or misunderstood – example to show how a trickle becomes a mighty torrent, while neither scrubbing nor sentimentalising the sacrifices along the way, while the magnificent cast brings the icons back down to earth: not just the brilliant Oyelowo, but also players like Tim Roth bringing a wry priggishness (and prickishness) to George Wallace, or Carmen Ejogo giving Coretta Scott King moments to be something more than a dignified, beaming wife. Befitting a film that identifies inertia as one of its main antagonists, Selma moves the line forward, allowing us to embrace and engage with our feelings about the past instead of simply holding it up as a tasteful museum piece.