I’m always a bit sceptical when it comes to biographical dramas. People who, indeed, have done great things in their lives are too often shown as perfect, flawless, almost God-like human beings. But the fact that someone managed to achieve something great, doesn’t necessarily mean they were great in every aspect of their lives. Being human also means being imperfect – and this is where Selma gets it right. Even though this is a film about one of the most important and influential people in the history of USA, director Ava DuVernay manages to show Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) as someone who is not only a preacher and a civil rights activist, but also a man with self-doubt and marriage problems. And it’s exactly because of those details that King manages to come across as a truly extraordinary man and not as some distorted, glorified history figure that seems all too good to be true.
This is one of the best biographical films I’ve ever seen that has brought me to tears on numerous occasions, although some may argue that it is not the most historically accurate one, since the right to use King’s real speeches was denied to the filmmakers. But what may very well ended up being a film about Luther delivering his famous speeches, inspiring people all over the USA to push for voter-registration reform, managed to become something much bigger in Ava DuVernay’s hands.This is not so much a film about a certain inspiring individual, as it is a film about a vision and courageousness of the entire African-American population. It focuses on all the people involved in the protests – on the citizens of Selma, Alabama and those who travelled to the South to march from Selma to the state capitol, Montgomery, to protest black disenfranchisement at the polls. Every activist present at the protests was important and deserves recognition, because King did not act alone – he had people who helped him, worked with him, gave him advice, and Ava DuVernay manages to acknowledge that. As Ty Burr beautifully put it: ““Selma” knows we want the story of the icon, but it’s the crowd, and King’s place in it, that surges history forward and gives this movie its lasting power.”
However, DuVernay’s portrayal of President Johnson sparkled some controversy. Only a day after Selma‘s limited Christmas opening, former advisor of President Johnson, Joseph A. Califano, published an article in The Washington Post, where he argues that “Selma was, in fact, LBJ’s idea“:
Film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself. In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him. (Califano 2014)
Of course, how could they ever made a film where African-American population took matters into their own hands and tried to shape their own future? Where is Brad Pitt, who rescues Solomon Northup from slavery in 12 Years a Slave? Where is Emma Stone who tries to help African-American maids in The Help? This is quite possibly the first time the African-American minority had the opportunity to tell the history as they see it, from their point of view. As Bailey summed it up:
Johnson does not come off like a civil rights-obstructing monster, but merely as a savvy politician who doesn’t share King’s sense of urgency. A peek at his own voting record indicates that LBJ wasn’t always a friend to the movement; whether his subsequent (laudable!) efforts were the result of an honest change of heart or merely smart politics is a question historians continue to ponder. Selma tends to lean towards the former interpretation, and that’s part of what’s so infuriating about this manufactured furor: that a woman of color gets a chance to tell an important story about civil rights, and she’s critiqued by white sycophants, progressives, and Oscar bloggers for not giving enough credit to the white guy.
And as Ava DuVernay herself explained:
People say that I painted LBJ as a villain, which is not what I was trying to do. Our intention was not to say anything other than that these were two great minds who were in a chess match at times. It wasn’t a skip through the park that they came to this Voting Rights Act. I mean the very fact that these citizens had to walk and march twice unprotected, unassisted; to face state troopers with no federal aid — that was a big point of contention. Yes, the president did come on board eventually; yes, he did eventually order the federal protection; yes, he did pass the Voting Rights Act; yes, there were nuances and challenges as far as what was happening in Washington that made him have to take pause and play a tactical game with timing. But the bottom line is this is what we know in the film: It was a timing issue and King was always saying, “The time is now. The time is not to wait.” This film is not about LBJ. This is a film that’s about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma. And one of those allies turned out to be, eventually, LBJ in this particular situation. (Ava DuVernay 2015)
This is an exceptional film about an exceptional historical figure. Director Ava DuVernay (who became the first black female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director and who will quite possibly become the first black director nominated for an Oscar) managed to recreate one of the most horrific and brutal events of the 60’s, and with that she created one of the most powerful and heartbreaking films of the past year. The cinematography by Bradford Young (who’s previous work includes Pariah and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is breathtaking and the acting is superb. David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King is absolutely outstanding, as is Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife Coretta. But even though the film portrays the events that happened 50 years ago (3 years before King’s assassination), it is hard to overlook how little has changed since then – with the recent shooting of Michael Brown and the suffocation of Eric Garner, King’s battle clearly still hasn’t been won. Far from it. King’s complaint about Alabama being 50% black with only 2% of black population allowed to vote, has curious parallels to modern-day Ferguson, Missouri, with predominantly black population and predominantly white police force. The brutal violence that police meted out against peaceful protesters on Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965 demonstration) on the Edmund Pettus Bridge also reminds us of the aftermath in Ferguson and Eric Garner grand jury decision. As DuVernay responded on the question about the film being timely: “It’s always going to be timely, because times haven’t changed for us“, to which the cinematographer Young added: “When you think about it that way it’s not about being timely, it’s just highlighting out continuous struggle to be human beings in the world.” (Yamato 2014)
List of references:
- Bailey, Jason. 2014. The Selma “Controversy” Isn’t About History; It’s About Oscars.
- Burr, Ty. 2015. In “Selma”, man and icon are one.
- Califano, Joseph A. Jr. 2014. The movie “Selma” has a glaring flaw.
- DuVernay, Ava. 2015. The Sounds, Space and Spirit of Selma: A Director’s Take.
- Yamato, Jen. 2014. Selma’s Bradford Young on the politics of lensing black films.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth
Running Time: 128 minutes