So many ‘biopics’ or fictional dramatisations of real people are either a) stretched over a too long a historical period, thus diluting effectiveness of the narrative or; b) too prescriptive in the ‘meaning’ of that subject. Selma, the film and location, is a staging point for one of the seminal moments of the American Civil Rights moment. All the players across director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s chess board get an opportunity to shine, whether it’s in the halls of power or in the house of god.
DuVurnay and Webb craft the film in such an inclusive way that it feels like the faces of the everyday people that are in the thick of the fray of the Civil Rights movement are acknowledged. Webb’s script, like Tony Kushner’s Lincoln script, gives the influential historical figures (and the actors that play them) the space to interact so that the film becomes a series of exchanges that give you an insight into the people at the heart of this movement and an uncompromising and pragmatic view of their flaws. The stand out sequences are Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Bayard Rustin wrestles with David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. while they’re behind bars about how to stay on their righteous path while continually being imprisoned or attempted to be silenced with extreme prejudice; and also when Henry G. Sanders’ Cager Lee is faced with the most devastating price for this political freedom, the loss of his grandson, he is comforted by King (Oyelowo) in the drab cleanliness of the Selma morgue. In a scene that takes place with the camera rocking in a comforting pendulum arc, you’re staring into the eyes of actors channeling the fires of their forebears. It’s the moment of the film that DuVernay’s directorial prowess solidified.
The portrayal of violence is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen. In the peak violence at it’s most horrendous, DuVernay injects the audience with a dose of adrenaline. We’re immersed in the experience and we’re seeing the carnage in an appropriately slower and enhanced way. For the most violent moment of the film, featuring a bombing that extinguished the lives of four little girls the shock frightens but makes you endure that dose. The violence on the outskirts of Selma, as the march encounters the wave of troopers on foot and horseback, doesn’t quite feature the same heightened level of disorientation of hurtling through debris. Instead time slows as the avalanche of horrific sounds (batons clobbering skulls, whip cracking and piercing skin, fists pounding lips into teeth) and the crisp unreality of watching peaceful protestors mowed down.
Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King has the regal beauty of a woman that was essentially the first lady of the Civil Rights Movement, while being able to impart the horrific reality of omnipresent threat (DuVurnay uses FBI surveillance time stamps to demonstrate the passage of time). She’s also forced to confront the indiscretions and flawed masculinity of her husband in a way that won’t jeopardise his (and thus the movement’s) image. The scenes that DuVurnay and Ejogo craft her character’s posture faced with the crippling pressure of her station is something to marvel at.
Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson has been receiving criticism for its historical inaccuracy or how it favourably (or unfavourably depending on the source) it casts his influence on this situation. For this reviewer it was a fair and realisitic version of the impossible plate spinning that’s required as the President of the world’s most powerful country. Especially in wake of Lee Daniel’s The Butler reducing LBJ to the President that barked orders about how to run the country while violently shitting.
David Oyelowo is sensational as Martin Luther King Jr. His performance has those necessary method details (aesthetic and voice) but they’re not the focus, they’re the pre-work of the performance. Oyelowo’s oratory as the MLK would not be nearly as feverishly powerful, if DuVurnay had not shown you his sleepless agonising of every single speech that he had to deliver. His toe-to-toe moments imploring the President of the U.S.A for his people’s political freedom would not have registered had you not seen the weight of the cost of placing his brothers and sisters in arms on the front lines to get battered for the sake of media coverage. Oyelowo at the heights of inspiration, in the quiet desperation is masterful at humanising the legend.
Dylan Baker’s brief turn as J. Edgar Hoover made me yearn for the J. Edgar movie that doesn’t distract you with rubbery make-up and gets to the forthright weirdness of the older corridor of that crazy historical character’s life. Wendell Pierce’s Rev. Hosea Williams just has a immovable, unflinching toughness that embodies the man of faith that would have the resolve to keep going back in harm’s way for the cause.
Selma‘s huge cast really all deserve mentioning because DuVurnay and her players have crafted unforgettable performances in every capacity. Jim France, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, André Holland, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Corey Reynolds, Stephan James, John Lavelle, Trai Byers, Keith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, Stan Houston, Tim Roth, Nigel Thatch, Stephen Root, Jeremy Strong and Cuba Gooding Jr. were all tremendous.
Selma is an almost impassable minefield of opportunities to make a bad film. Director Ava DuVernay danced through like Fred Astair. Selma is a masterpiece.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Jim France, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Dylan Baker, Corey Reynolds, Wendell Pierce, Stephan James, John Lavelle, Trai Byers, Keith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, Stan Houston, Tim Roth, Nigel Thatch, Stephen Root, Jeremy Strong, Cuba Gooding Jr.