The producers and distributors of Selma got their timing down perfectly – in some ways that were undoubtedly planned and others purely fortuitous. This fine film about a critical juncture in the unfolding of the American Civil Rights movement was released on the festival circuit in late 2014, in time to qualify for some Oscar nominations, but didn’t hit the theaters until a couple of weeks before Martin Luther King Day, with Black History Month just around the corner.
What could not have been foreseen by Ava DuVernay, Paramount Pictures, Oprah Winfrey et alia was the impact that a rapid succession of incidents of killings of unarmed black youths by white police officers would have on the American psyche in the months leading up to the film’s release. Familiarity with the concept of “the new Jim Crow” is no longer limited to black intellectuals and sociologists, but increasingly widespread food for thought for people of conscience of all colors across the land. For all the change that has happened since 1965, when the movie is set, it has become increasingly clear within the past year that racism remains stubbornly entrenched in many of our institutions.
Selma serves up certified bad guys of the past like J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), but, unfortunately, in the interests of drama, director DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb make their most serious historical misstep by lumping in president Lyndon Baines Johnson with these obstacles to human progress. It might legitimately be said that Selma is to the Voting Rights Act what the movie Lincoln is to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution; but this Johnson is no Lincoln by a long shot.
While LBJ and MLK didn’t see entirely eye-to-eye on tactics and timing, the real-life Johnson was not nearly the oppositional force to be overcome that he’s portrayed as in this movie. And he wasn’t the one who sicced FBI wiretappers on Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders (believe it or not, that was actually attorney general Robert F. Kennedy). It doesn’t help matters much that Tom Wilkinson is miscast in the role of the president. The excellent British actor, who has successfully portrayed both Benjamin Franklin and Joe Kennedy in the past, manages to hide his Britishness neatly but not to sound Texan at all. And he fails to capture the distinctive mix of crude-but-charming, tall-tale-telling folksiness and hard-nosed political pragmatism that those of us old enough to remember the LBJ administration came to know so well.
It isn’t as if the plot of Selma even needed this exaggerated dialectic between King and Johnson as a central conflict to pump up the drama for the screen’s sake. Even without it, the story has conflicts aplenty: The second scene in the movie powerfully depicts the tragic Birmingham church bombing in which four young girls were killed. We see black Southerners being roughed up when they try to vote or murdered when they march. We witness turf battles between the old guard of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the young upstarts of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who were already conducting voter registration drives in Selma before King decided to make the town the focal point of his push for voting rights legislation. We see the stresses of fame, constant displacement and death threats on Dr. King’s marriage and family. And throughout the film, actor David Oyelowo masterfully conveys his internal conflicts as the brilliant strategist daily confronts the appalling human costs of the tactical decisions that he makes.
Oyelowo deserves every accolade that he has already received for this performance and then some. He has thoroughly internalized King’s magnificent gift for compelling oratory, the preacher’s fire-and-brimstone cadences, the meticulous diction, the voice as resonant as a pipe organ. And his physical acting rivals his line delivery, with determination and self-doubt chasing one another over the planes of his expressive face even when there are no words to be said.
Some of the tragedies that befall the ordinary people inspired by King’s words do indeed transcend the power of words to soothe, as exemplified in a moving scene where the leader visits the grandfather (Henry G. Sanders) of Jimmie Lee Jackson (rapper Keith Stanfield), who has been fatally shot by police after participating in a protest. And for all its verbal sparring between MLK and LBJ in the Oval Office (with the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington comically positioned to sneer disapprovingly at the 36th president), one of Selma’s great strengths is its focus on the “little people” who made the movement go, the cannon fodder who fell before the batons, whips and horses of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on hundreds of other battlegrounds in the fight to end segregation and gain black Americans the freedom to vote. The movie repeatedly catches us up with the ongoing involvement of a cross-section of these determined, self-sacrificing people who have no national holidays named after them, but took extraordinary risks to make social change happen.
Though Oyelowo is due the primary acting laurels for Selma, he is surrounded by many other terrific actors who make strong impressions even in tiny roles. It almost seems unfair to single any out, but I was especially impressed by Sanders, Colman Domingo as King’s right-hand man Ralph Abernathy, Stephan James as SNCC organizer/future congressman John Lewis, Lorraine Toussaint as Bloody Sunday activist Amelia Boynton, Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X and Giovanni Ribisi as LBJ advisor Lee White. Praise is also due the film’s muted lighting and sepia-drenched cinematography by Bradford Young and its economical-but-evocative musical score by Jason Moran.
Aside from the quibbles about historical inaccuracies, which seem to be an inevitable part of the package in movies based on real people and events, Selma is a worthy entrant in this year’s Oscar sweepstakes and deserves to be widely seen. It packs a powerful dramatic punch and reminds us all that man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t go away with the stroke of a president’s pen. It needs to be resisted daily, and the ones who do the heavy resisting aren’t the leaders – not even ones as brave and gifted as Martin Luther King, Jr. Brothers and sisters, they’re you and me.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.