I first saw Ava DuVernay’s Selma in those pre-MoviePass days when going to a theater by myself was a rare occurrence. This was the weekend after the Oscar nominations had been announced, and here was a Best Picture nominee within driving distance. Excitement and drama were in the air. I had been promised that Selma was a more significant achievement than its prestige biopic trappings suggested; that it was a serious biographical portrait, a piece of Black history recounted by a Black filmmaker, with a thrilling lead performance by David Oyelowo. Both DuVernay and Oyelowo had been passed over by the Academy, sparking criticism of the body’s self-satisfied and monochromatic electorate. I wrote, very naively, about these subjects at the time. Then I saw the movie and liked it quite a lot — for the way it advanced its argument more than anything else, perhaps. I had much to learn about movies as political statements, in addition to all the other things I was only beginning to know. Now I’m nearly four years wiser, and I feel I should judge anew whether the middling 3 ½-star rating I gave Selma in 2015 was justified.
The use of FBI surveillance logs as occasional intertitles, punched onto the screen as if by an electric typewriter, serves a couple different functions at once. Superficially, it’s the old historical drama convention of reminding the audience, “This stuff really happened, you know” — in much the same way as the incorporation, late in the film, of news footage from the actual Selma to Montgomery march. At the same time, the information conveyed in the logs is darkly humorous, both for its prying nature and the obvious suspicion in the writing. Part of what makes Selma such an engrossing political film is in how it paints the various factions on both sides of the Civil Rights struggle. Contrary to any number of mediocre period films, angry Southern racists were not the only obstacles to equality. On the flipside, the movie consciously strives to give a full picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. — so often embalmed by white America today as an American saint, even though at the time a federal law enforcement agency considered him a potential threat.
The spectrum runs from the openly antagonistic Alabama government to the triangulating and irritable President Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter ultimately follows through on helping King’s cause, and the question of whether his initial hesitance is a little bit racist or not (the cause of a minor controversy upon the film’s release) is a rabbit hole not worth exploring. As written in the film, Johnson’s contention that King has one issue to work on while he, the president, has hundreds to juggle is condescending and false. The movie doesn’t really explore his point of view beyond that. DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young compose many frames to highlight the honored portraits in the White House, silently demonstrating the longstanding apparatus with which King must contend. This first post-Ferguson mainstream Black film draws unambiguous connections between the struggle of the 1960s and the struggle of today, in terms of violence inflicted by the state and the backlash against voting rights. It’s also a movie (and I noticed this on my first viewing, as well) with a deeply Christian theme, about laying down your life so that others (your children, and theirs) can have life more abundantly.
As the title suggests, Selma is more a film about one historical event than it is an MLK biography. Other Black activists are given a voice in the film as well, more than one of whom questions King’s approach. James Forman (played by Trai Byers) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee finds King’s protests to be a distraction from the careful grassroots work of his organization. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) finds the entire nonviolent approach to be limiting and possibly counterproductive. These debates are hashed out extensively, as are other considerations: when to march, how to demonstrate, who should attend. An element of hand-holding creeps in from time to time in these scenes, as if the characters exist just to tell the audience what happened and why. Other scenes have real dramatic impact, however, such as one in which future congressman John Lewis (Stephan James) helps King overcome his doubts about the planned march and its costs. While King was uniquely eloquent and influential, the film shows him to be one of many who were fighting for the same cause. It also shows him to be a flawed man, who betrayed his wife and had to ask for forgiveness. In describing Selma as a whole, the word “conscientious” comes to mind, which sounds airless though I don’t mean it to be.
Well, maybe I do mean it that way, a little. Selma is confrontational enough to pass muster as a true political statement, not just a comforting reminder that the problems of the past have been overcome. David Oyelowo is brilliant in the role of Martin Luther King, inhabiting the icon with full authority and passion. And for the most part, the story exhibits high drama — just the right mix of physical action, one-on-one arguments, and even a courtroom scene. If there’s one thing holding me back in my praise of the film, it’s that tug of dutifulness in the execution. Even with all the script’s self-imposed focus, it still ends up looking pretty tidy and buttoned-down in its depiction of history. I’m learning to ask more of the movies I watch. If they “confront” other people whom I feel need confronting, that’s all well and good. But I need to be challenged, too. If a movie about people and events far removed from my own experience merely comforts, rather than confronts, me, then either I’m missing something or the movie is. It could be me in this case! I can always use more context, whether cinematic or historical. But for now, I maintain that Selma is a good movie that brushes up against its own limitations but doesn’t do anything more. For now, it maintains its 3 ½-star rating.