Whatever their individual merits, or lack thereof, Hollywood reflections on the Civil Rights Movement from the likes of Driving Miss Daisy or The Help tend to conclude by putting on a happy face. They’re viewing the tribulations of the time through a historical distancing complex that takes great pride finding history in the past. How terrible racism and its effects, they say. And yet situating a story as vital as a fight for human rights through the view of sympathetic white help, told firmly from a supposedly more enlightened present, provides only uplift. One whose knowledge of history comes only from Hollywood could be excused for thinking the story of Civil Rights is the mission-accomplished post-racism lie sold by the willfully ignorant.
The power of a film like Ava DuVernay’s Selma comes in its restoring to history its devastating immediacy, while refusing to obscure the direct line from then to now. It takes as its subject the 1965 marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. That was a mere 50 years ago, when brave peaceful protesters were beaten by eager police in riot gear, in front of news cameras for the entire world to see. In this film, each blow feels fresh, the bruises still painful. It keeps the focus of a heroic, historic moment rooted in the humane details, presenting key figures as complicated human beings confronting the worst of humanity with hard-fought grace and determination. It’s a film that plays on your historical knowledge – you can’t watch an opening scene of little girls in their Sunday best walking through a church without a sick feeling of dread suspecting their fate – without taking it for granted or softening historical horror with the benefits of hindsight.
Every choice made by the filmmakers is rooted in immediacy and intimacy. They take our usual view of history – of Great Men, Important Speeches, and Big Moments – and restore a sense of the masses to a movement. The Civil Rights Movement was, after all, made up of people, hundreds and thousands of individuals whose collective voice was heard. The marches at Selma may have been organized and inspired by, among others, Martin Luther King Jr, but he needed the passion and commitment of the people who made up the crowds. DuVernay’s film’s most powerful moments are in its crowd scenes, when King (played brilliantly and convincingly by David Oyelowo) is simply one of many marching towards crowds of cops and hecklers, determined to draw attention to their cause.
Placing the crowds and King on similar levels of focus, the film draws a lively and humane reenactment. We come to recognize faces (Oprah Winfrey, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Tessa Thompson, Stephan James, and more). We can pick them out in the crowds. We know a little of their stories. We see their eagerness, their idealism, their pragmatic planning. Then we see them shoved, hit, shot at, and bludgeoned. Their faces are bloodied as they limp to safety, ready to head out and march again the next day. At its best, Selma is history written with lightening, sharply revealing and an electric burn. It burns for the ferocity of the facts, and the sad recognition in them of so many concerns that linger still. When an unarmed black man is gunned down by white cops who will never be punished, it’s hard not to read echoes of current events in the pain and sorrow on the screen.
Writer-director DuVernay’s previous films were small-scale intimate dramas, tenderly studying the emotional currents between her characters. You can see that skill in Selma’s portrait of King’s relationship with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and closest advisors (Wendell Pierce chief among them). Not just the easily appropriated, endlessly quotable symbol to which he can so often be reduced, we see King at a recognizably human level. He heads to the streets, ready to face death threats and worse as he delivers sermons with fire and conviction, no matter his private troubles and doubts. But we also see in the small, quiet moments of his life as husband, father, and friend, soft intimate spaces over which hangs the import and danger of his righteous calling.
The film is more diffuse than a biopic, and the time with the supporting cast doesn’t allow for any one standout amongst them. King still dominates the proceedings, drawing focus even when not on screen. He’s a figure of inspiration and conflict amongst everyone, but it’s always clear he’s only human. It’s a picture of a person, and of a movement, that manages to be honest without tearing anyone down. Following backroom negotiations, strategy sessions, and heartfelt speeches between moments of extreme racial tension and sympathetically drawn character moments, Selma is best when it’s witnessing the crisis points of the conflict, and when sitting back with the activists in casual moments of camaraderie, eating, praying, or singing while planning the next move. In those cases, DuVernay makes a film most clearly interested in the human experience first, not just the Big Important moments.
The film falls into some conventional docudrama patterns, like unnecessary time-stamped text and a few clumsy integrations of full names and position statements, orienting the audience at the (brief) expense of immediacy. So, too, the scenes in the White House with LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) or the State Capital where George Wallace (Tim Roth) growls and spits slurs, sequences which sit at a remove from the street-level interest. But when the story and the filmmaking sits powerfully close to the planning and the protests, it is too vitally alive to be held back entirely by such predictable based-on-a-true-story message movie moments.
Bradford Young’s cinematography finds glowing skin tones in cozy interiors that crackle with dimly-lit beauty reminiscent of Gordon Willis. But then we head outside with the protestors, where under the bright light of the sun, angry, violent racism must inevitably meet non-violence. The emotions of real people who somehow muster the courage to put themselves in harms way for what they believe are beautifully realized in a present tense, shorn from the usual feel-good conclusions. This is a hard-hitting view of these events, sympathetic and inspiring, but also pragmatic and clear-eyed about how hard-fought the battle, how real the accomplishments, and yet how ongoing the conflict.