Curiously, two of the companies which produced Selma also produced these. The Butler, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, was the more financially but less artistically successful of the two, offering a feel good story and a great performance by Forrest Whittaker (for whom great is about par), Still, its uneven melodrama and sentimentality made it feel like the Hallmark Channel version of African American history.
On the other hand, 12 Years a Slave, co-produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, was a critical triumph that earned less than half of its sanitized counterpart. It’s a brutal experience (although not without uplift) punctuated by an unending shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor twisting on his toes at the end of a noose while his fellow slaves go about their business in the open grass behind him. In some ways the two films mimic their eponymous occupations: Butler is polite and inoffensive, Slave is visceral and punishing. Together the two complimented each other well, and could be seen as representatives of two very different approaches for stories of American Civil Rights.
What Selma does so well is find the middle ground between the two extremes. The film begins with quiet refinement, Martin Luther King talking with his wife Coretta as he prepares to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, before making a sudden shift to the savage with the 16th Street Church Bombing. The shot itself, with its interior blast and lingering image makes it clear that Selma isn’t interested in being nice.
However, as seen over the course of many confrontations, the film doesn’t dwell on suffering. For once, especially when dealing with an inspirational figure such as Dr. King, a film neither cleans up nor sensationalizes its violence. It exists, it is shown, it is rough and swift, but it isn’t lingered on or a driving factor in the story. Violence in this fictionalized Selma is as it was in the real one, ugly and possible but not inevitable.
This approach is emblematic of how Selma handles the majority of its subject matter. Those of us who grew up with “I Have a Dream” as our guiding principle or reading Strive Toward Freedom in high school know Dr. King as a monolith of justice and passive resistance. He is an untouchable icon, almost an abstract, existing on an ethereal plane that none of our time can reach. We know he had flaws, everyone does, but that doesn’t make it easier to picture him having a meal or talking with his friends. Thus Selma‘s greatest moments come during those of uncertainty, when even this icon appeared lost or called upon those around him for inspiration.
While we can’t know how accurate these scenes are, one of the film’s most quietly powerful instances is of Dr. King standing at his children’s bedsides as they sleep, saying goodbye to them before he leaves on a trip that, given the threats and the swiftness with which they strike, could be his last. In this moment Dr. King is stripped of his iconic position. There’s no grand oration or open weeping, there is just a man and his sleeping children. An image that any of us, regardless of race, gender, or parental status, can immediately relate to. It’s in this silence that we see the care with which Ava DeVernay approaches her subject.
There are also times when Selma becomes critical of its protagonist. The topic of King’s extra-marital affairs is dealt with very quickly but considerable time is spent questioning how strongly the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) is committed to the towns it visits and whether the residents there are better for it. The scenes between representatives of SCLC and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) show King, as phenomenally portrayed by David Oyelowo, to be a man keenly aware of the importance of both resistance and media presence. The concept of nonviolence itself takes on a theatrical element, particularly in scenes where it is either practiced or defied (it’s interesting that Oprah Winfrey herself portrays this side of the equation).
So much of Selma is told through this close third person view that it’s easy to forget how influential its protagonist is. We see him doubt, pray, argue with his wife, and descend greedily upon a fellow activist’s kitchen and almost forget that he also has a direct pass to the Oval Office and audience with the President. It’s in his interaction with Stephen James as John Lewis (himself a Civil Rights and congressional hero) that we see how the rest of the world, the little people not privy to King’s inner circle, look upon on him. We wonder what that experience would have been like, driving with this luminary as he would one of our high school buddies.
It is impossible to watch Selma without immediately thinking of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other places in the U.S. The mounted and armed police which meet the marchers with their dogs and tear gas become the 1960s equivalent of the militarized force which pushed back protestors with their assault rifles, armored vehicles, and more tear gas. I doubt it’s any coincidence that a film detailing the struggle to create the Voting Rights Act is released one year after the Supreme Court strips much of the effectiveness of that same law. Nor that the importance of voting rights is emphasized at a time when many states are actively working to turn away voters that during King’s time weren’t allowed at the polls. In this way, Selma becomes a reminder of what was necessary to bring society to this point, how much further it still has to go, and the danger of reverting back to a previous time, no matter how rosy the bifocals may make it appear.
Of course, it’s also in dealing with real history that the film has some troubles. Yes, there is some debatable material about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s commitment to the Voting Rights Act and the insinuation that he ordered J. Edgar Hoover to ruin King’s marriage, but it’s a movie and this is needed for dramatic tension, although the better villain is Governor George Wallace. (In a conversation with my father he said of the assassination attempt on Wallace, “A lot of people were upset that the mother f**ker didn’t die.”) Selma is not a documentary, nor does it claim to be, nor does it have the responsibility to be. Hopefully, the audience will be as forgiving of this as it is of suggesting that Martin Luther King Jr. being a flawed man doesn’t make him any less great. Yet, this oversight isn’t the film’s problem.
Instead, the trouble comes with actually shifting from fiction to reality and back again. It comes very late in the film, switching from its dramatic recreation to archival photographs, but not late enough that it doesn’t have to immediately return to its fiction. Seeing the bridge as it really was at the time shatters the illusion of the film and is an odd choice after remaining so long in this perspective. There’s also a certain undeveloped quality to the family life that at first seems so essential. Ultimately, the film is powerful and moving, often bringing me close to tears (particularly in scenes of racial unity, because that’s my dream too), but not without its drags and missteps.
Selma isn’t a film that will be shown in grade school history classes. It’s the film that should be shown in grade school history classes. It’s an important movie that doesn’t let a sense of importance get in the way of actually being important. But more than that, it’s an impacting experience that makes us think of where we’ve been, how we got where we are, and where we’re going. Like Dr. King himself, Selma is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking at the past. And that, more than anything, makes it worth seeing.