In the opening sequence of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepts his Nobel Prize. In the next scene, four little girls are murdered at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the scene that follows, Selma activist Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote, and is unable to pass the ridiculous oral examination (“How many county judges in Alabama?” the white registrar asks. “Sixty-seven,” she replies. “Name them,” he sneers.) The juxtaposition of these three scenes is purposeful, clarifying the film’s drama, and its stakes: in addition to MLK, it is a story of racially motivated murder, and of the battle for the right to vote. Selma is the year’s best film because it is great filmmaking — powerful, moving, inspiring. DuVernay makes history live and breathe and vibrate. But it is also more than just a dramatization, or a relic; as its strangely timely release suggests, none of this is as historical as we’d like to think. This is a 50-year-old story. Except it isn’t.
Significantly, the title isn’t MLK, but Selma. This is a snapshot of a place and a time, not a biopic of a man. And even within those terms, it’s less a Theory of Everything than a Lincoln; instead of attempting to compress an entire life into a single film, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb select a specific moment that characterizes that life. In this case, it’s King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1965 campaign for voting rights in Alabama, climaxing with the bloodshed at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and culminating with LBJ’s introduction of the Voting Rights Act.
It’s a grand but important story, yet Selma tells it in strikingly personal terms. In an early scene, King and his SCLC colleagues arrive at the Selma home of a supporter and feast on her cooking, eating and joking around; it’s not a necessary scene for the narrative, but it’s an important one anyway, as it highlights their everyday, vernacular humanity. These were not cardboard historical figures, but real people; the pleasures of seeing them that way renders an otherwise ordinary scene, like the lovely moment of Dr. King going through his home late at night to shut off the lights and tuck in his kids, into something indescribably warm and intimate. And it also makes the scenes that address — first as implicit subtext and then in difficult dialogue — his marital transgressions less sensationalistic, and more complicated.
David Oyelowo, who plays King, has been very good in many other films, yet he’s a revelation here. He doesn’t get too wrapped up in the particulars of impersonation — he’s got the rhythms of King’s speech, and that’s enough. You believe his power to inspire; he’s a thrilling enough presence, in the scenes of King speaking and preaching, to rally both the audience in the frame and the audience outside of it. Yet the film doesn’t just approach him as a Pollyanna, or a martyr; Selma was an operation, conducted with great precision by those on both sides (the timeline is clarified by on-screen text of FBI agents logging King’s activities). DuVernay isn’t just interested in results — she’s interested in logistics, in process. And when King lays out his well-reasoned strategy to the resistant heads of SNCC, she and Webb create something nearly impossible: a scene that is both great exposition and great drama.
DuVernay is a gifted artist who worked her way up from film publicity to low-budget filmmaking to television to this, her big shot, a major motion picture telling an important story, and there’s never a second where she’s not in total control. At its best — the thrilling demonstration in front of the Selma courthouse, the horrifying beatings of a night march, the unfolding of the Pettus Bridge melee, intercut with a Times reporter dictating his story over a pay phone — Selma recreates the urgency and intensity of those moments.
But there’s more to it than that, much more. The timeliness of the picture, coupled with the immediacy of the filmmaking, renders Selma more powerful than even its skilled creators could’ve possibly intended. After all, it takes us to a moment when “black voters are kept off the rolls and out of the voting booth” — following an election where the dismantling of the film’s climactic legislation and scores of laws enacted to prevent fictitious “voter fraud” thinned rolls across the country. It reminds us of the scourge of improvised “literacy tests,” just as the vapid (white) talking heads of a conservative news outlet propose reinstating such exams. It shows the brutal beatings and tear-gassing of those who attempt to protest injustice and racism, scenes shot today in HD video rather than newsreel film. And in the midst of it all, a uniformed police officer murders an unarmed black man, which apparently remains an unindictable offense.
DuVernay is keenly aware of those parallels, but doesn’t overstate them; she merely allows them to happen, past as present, reflecting and commenting. The most explicit comment comes not in dialogue, but in John Legend’s closing song “Glory.” It accompanies a concluding montage where a dramatization of the final, triumphant march from Selma to Birmingham unexpectedly moves from then to now, from fictionalized to archival, from present to past then back again, all wound up in each other and themselves.
“Where are we going now?” asks the recurring lyric. Good question.
Selma opens Christmas Day in limited release.