It’s one of the defining moments of history. Speaking in Washington DC, in 1963, Dr Martin Luther King shared his dream for racial equality, his hope that one day all Americans would be judged ‘not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. While King’s words rung clear on that day, and continue to echo down the years, his optimism remains largely unrealised; indeed, it’s impossible to watch Selma without drawing obvious parallels with what’s happening publically in places like Ferguson and Staten Island and on an unreported daily basis across the USA. Yet the power of Ava DuVernay’s astonishing film is that it doesn’t shy away from laying bare the political and cultural limitations placed on King’s work, even as it celebrates his relentless endeavours.
As its title suggests, Selma eschews the traditional, all-encompassing biopic format to concentrate on a pivotal and representative moment in King’s fight for equality; the epic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand voting rights for African Americans – a campaign which ultimately led to the US Government passing the historic Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination at the polls, in August that year. Despite being a man who had by that time amassed far-reaching support and political prowess, King (David Oyelowo) faced huge opposition on all fronts; from a reluctant President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the inherently racist Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the brutal local police force. It’s enough to make even the strongest man question the courage of his convictions, and King must overcome his own crisis of faith if he is ever to lead a successful revolution.
And Oyelowo is surrounded by a truly stellar cast, including the exceptional Carmen Ejogo as King’s strong-willed wife Coretta Scott King (a role she previously played in 2001’s Boycott), Common and Wendell Pierce as King’s fellow Civil Rights activists James Bevel and Rev Hosea Williams and the film’s producer Oprah Winfrey in a perfect cameo as disenfranchised Annie Lee Cooper. Also pleasingly present in the crowd are some of those who joined King on his march in 1965.
This decision to highlight King as one of many great figures, rather than simply shine the spotlight directly on him and cast the rest in shadow, is central to DuVernay’s vision, and her refusal to make him a deity gives the film a resounding honesty. ‘This film is not called ‘King’, this is Selma,’ DuVernay said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. ‘This was as much the story about the band of brothers and sisters that were around him as it was King’s story. There haven’t been great pains taken to show that he was a leader among leaders – all of them could probably have done it.’
Indeed, debut screenwriter Paul Webb’s original Black List-topping screenplay actually told this story from the point of view of President Johnson, and DuVernay agreed to helm the project only if she could rework the script. (Webb retains sole writing credit.) ‘I wasn’t interested in making a white-saviour movie,’ she told Rolling Stone. ‘I was interested in making a movie centred on the people of Selma.’ In doing so, she has crafted a story that is accessible, enthralling and humble; no mean feat, considering the gravitas of the subject and the fact that the King estate did not grant permission to use his words, meaning some creative license was necessary for the film to even make it out of the starting blocks.
In her direction, too, DuVernay has avoided the lionising and melodrama to which these big ticket biopics so often succumb, instead bringing a surprising intimacy to this pivotal moment in history. The director has spoken a great deal about how Selma is an extremely personal project for her; her father grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, and watched King’s Freedom March protestors pass by his family farm. ‘I didn’t have to learn Selma to make Selma,’ DuVernay said in December 2013 interview with New York Magazine. ‘I didn’t have to research what kind of place this is. The people I love most in the world live in that part of the country.’ And, from her family in the South to her own youth in Compton, Los Angeles, and her experiences in Hollywood, DuVernay has seen first-hand that King’s fight for equality still rages in all corners, and this sense of injustice informs her work without ever overwhelming it.
But DuVernay doesn’t just bring generations of African American experience to Selma; she also brings a clear understanding of how to translate this experience to the screen for a wide audience. A co-founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, DuVernay spent many years as a film publicist; indeed, she was hired to consult on Selma some years ago, when Lee Daniels (The Butler) was attached as director. After following her dream to get behind the camera, DuVernay made two well-received films, I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012), the latter of which saw her become the first African American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. Unbeknownst to DuVernay, her Middle of Nowhere star Oyelowo was lobbying hard for her to take the helm of Selma, to which he was attached, and enlisted the considerable clout of his Butler co-star Oprah Winfrey in his efforts.
It’s certainly difficult to imagine another director bringing DuVernay’s dedication, passion and life experience to this project; a potent combination that’s on display in every expertly considered frame. DuVernay handles these big events with a focused eye, a steady hand and an unwavering belief in her vision. This expert touch is most strikingly demonstrated in three of the film’s most powerful sequences; the church explosion which kills four young girls, the unprovoked café slaying of young protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) at the hands of a trigger happy cop and King’s first attempt to march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Although all of these display horrific levels of violence, DuVernay is careful to structure them in a way that is candid and unflinching without being indulgent or overplayed.
DuVernay was also careful to surround herself with craftspeople as devoted to bringing this story to the screen as she, and Selma has a visual identity as authentic as its narrative. Art director Kim Jennings and costume designer Ruth E Carter give life to the atmosphere and style of the mid-60s, while editor Spencer Averick ensures that the story is given the freedom to evolve naturally, rather than – as so often happens with biopics – presenting it as staccato bullet points of important events. And cinematographer Bradford Young showcases the expert visual prowess previously seen in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Most Violent Year, his camera capturing both the raw, visceral clout of mass protest and the quiet power of King’s personal introspection.
By being unafraid to present King as a fallible, ordinary man attempting to turn the tide of history through extraordinary action, Selma is a resonant and relevant portrait not just of this incredible individual, but also the enduring power of protest. ‘This film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices – black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths – to do something amazing,’ DuVernay told The Hollywood Reporter. Of course, Selma is also an effective and damning critique of the relentless hypocrisy of such appalling race relations in a country built on the ideals of democracy and equality for all; as DuVernay herself told NY Mag, ‘The current dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and the breaking of the black body at the hands of police, this is not new.’ With that brutal truth in mind, Selma is not just stunning cinema but an essential piece of social history.
UK Release Date: February 6, 2015
An edited version of this review originally appeared in The List