Martin Luther King Jr. accepts his Nobel Peace Prize. In the next scene, four black little girls get blown away in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, one of many acts of violence perpetuated a year earlier in Birmingham, Ala. over the city’s agreement to desegregate.
Selma follows King (David Oyelowo) through the three months leading up to the Selma-Montgomery marches directly preceding Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King’s crowning legal achievement. An ensemble cast includes Keith Stanfield, Oprah Winfrey (who also produces) and Tim Roth.
Ignoring, for a moment, its horrible timeliness, Selma is an incredible film. Where the past few months have been a sea of biopics that did everything wrong, Selma does pretty much everything right. The movie doesn’t pause to point out important characters and warn the audience what’s going to happen. Some extras are obviously important because Oprah is playing them, but it’s still a much more free-flowing story. Only history buffs will know when characters are about to die, and when they do die, it’s felt deeply because they were played as just another person.
The film focuses on the three month climax of King’s work instead of his entire life. This keeps the conflict in focus and gives the movie time to go into detail. Historically, Selma has found a fantastic nook — the Selma-Montgomery marches were the most important part of King’s work, but everyone remembers him for the “I have a dream” speech, which took place two years earlier. Fifty years later, Bloody Sunday is a background event.
King is portrayed as a man with conflict to whom a person could reasonably object. Instead of simply saying he’s the main character and listing his accolades, Selma puts on display why King has the reputation he does — his speaking power. Oyelowo is incredible. His several sermons feel like authentic King speeches, which is especially impressive given that the King estate didn’t permit the film to use his actual words.
It’s got style, and like anything with style there are reasons not to enjoy it. The film is oddly fast at a macro level, but very, very slow scene-to-scene. The storyline between King and his wife is mostly filler as, despite the drama, nothing comes of it. Great name actors Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tessa Thompson of Dear White People fame are mostly window dressing.
Johnson is depicted as apathetic to the Civil Rights movement, and it’s the only part of the movie that’s just not true. Johnson was heavily invested in King’s success, and gave several ideas on how to proceed throughout the shown time period. The majority of the film’s criticism has been centered on this issue, and it’s valid.
Co-writer/director Ava DuVernay deserves every bouquet imaginable at the end of this production. The direction is fantastic and the writing is unbelievable. Almost every scene pops — particularly the ones without violence or other obvious forms of action. She became the first black woman nominated for a Golden Globe for best director, losing to Richard Linklater for Boyhood, which is probably exactly what will happen at the Oscars as well. To be fair, he did spend 12 years on it.
What Selma does — what it really does — is it puts the audience in the thick of the fight for civil rights. You hear King’s speeches. You see the violence against the marchers. It all comes rushing back, all the institutional hatred, all the unpenalized violence of Alabama at the time.
Of Missouri a few months ago.
Selma releases serendipitously just months after an outrage that some called the second civil rights movement broke out over Michael Brown’s shooting by a police officer who had previously been a member of a force that was disbanded because it was too racist, and over Eric Garner’s death weeks later at the hands of a police officer who had been the subject of two civil rights lawsuits.
Additionally, two years ago when Wendy Davis was distracting everyone, the Supreme Court very quietly rendered the voting rights act passed in this film moot. The court ruled it was unconstitutional to target states with a history of racist voting practices, despite having struck down 74 voting changes that were ruled discriminatory in the just eight states the law still covered since 2000. Remember when Texas passed a voter ID law identical to one that Florida had been sued over by its own citizens a year earlier? That was made possible by this ruling.
Selma is engrossing enough that it doesn’t hang over the movie like the spectre that it is, but the fact remains: black people are still getting killed and imprisoned en masse and police are still getting off the hook for it, and minorities are still being disenfranchised by the millions. All of this, the unrest, the marches, all of it needs to happen again.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Je Suis Charlie. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.