Selma (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Jan/150

Selma (2014)

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Alabama is consumed by racist violence.  The Ku Klux Klan kills four little girls in a Birmingham church with a bomb, the authorities in Selma deny any black citizen the right to vote, and Governor George Wallace is calling for continued segregation.  Dr. Malcolm Luther King Jr., denied justice once again by the President, organizes the forces in Selma to stand up against this oppression.  Ava DuVernay directs Selma from a screenplay written by Paul Webb, starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo.

My pulpit of choiceA woman sits alone in a courthouse.  When it's her turn to go to the clerk she takes her papers and is too tired to put on a brave face when she speaks to him.  She looks to the right side of the screen, not addressing us but the man standing in her way.  He tells her to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, asks how many county judges are there, and the camera no longer takes in her profile but her full face.  We watch the strength gather and, as it seems victory is in sight, he asks a nearly impossible question.  The camera returns to her side profile, and she sinks off the screen, dejected and almost broken.

We'll see that side profile again as Selma is filled with people who look to the future but keep getting pushed back into the past.  Oprah Winfrey, arguably the most powerful woman in the world, is cast specifically to remind us of the power she could not wield in the '60s.  She would have been about ten years old when the events of Selma unfolded and seen the broken, the dying, and the murdered black bodies of men and women who wanted to vote.  We think, how many women could have reached her level of influence and power, if only they had the freedom to try?

That question is brought up in blood and tears throughout Selma, as the violently suppressed community fights for their basic rights.  Despite the power and lonely, mythical imagery concocted in that opening scene, Selma is not a fable in the way Lee Daniels' The Butler was.  Behind the myth is a violent struggle, fought by people who used their bodies as shields and deaths as a beacon, and Selma is more interested in the battlefield than it is the legacy.  What results is a unique, violent, and powerful cry of rage and defiance against a persistent legacy of American cruelty.

Even with her commanding leads, director Eva DuVernay never lets us forget the toll taken on the entire black population of Ameria.

Even with her commanding leads, director Eva DuVernay never forgets the story is not just about Dr. King but the entire oppressed population of America.

What screenwriter Paul Webb understood is that there is no way a single film could contain the essence of Dr. King's legacy, and instead narrows the focus of the story down to Dr. King's arrival in Selma, AL to begin his fight for the right to vote.  Considering how many biopics stretch themselves thin trying to get every bit of the legend out, this was an excellent call by Webb.  Expanding the timeline and narrowing the scope to just Dr. King would leave us without the tense conversations between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his aides, or the struggles between Dr. King and the neighborhood authorities about who controls the fight.

Dr. King's legacy is built into his words, but also the community he died for, and it's fitting that Selma embraces that community.  Director Ava DuVernay never forgets this in the many shots of Dr. King and those he is leading into the fray.  There is a clear distinction between the weasely men in power hiding behind their symbols, and the mass of innocent people who follow Dr. King.  I was caught by surprise just how many times DuVernay would pull the camera back and what I thought was a clandestine meeting between Dr. King and a cohort was really a quiet conversation in a crowd that is silent out of respect.

Another important recurring image in Selma involves the duel between Dr. King and then-governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).  Dr. King's pulpit is a church of gold and brown, righteousness and earth, and when he is forced into the darkness he still finds a sliver of light to preach from.  Governor Wallace's pulpit is a rally of hate with the red of the Confederate brought to a bloody tint in the frame while an army of uniformed monsters waits to do his bidding.  Certain comparisons to another evil totalitarian regime of the 20th century should be expected, and considering Wallace's wish to avoid a "mongrel race" he earned that comparison.

George Wallace's words inspired the strongest hate from his delegation in Alabama, and we see the immediate and violent consequences of his actions.

George Wallace's words inspired the strongest hate from his delegation in Alabama, and we see the immediate and violent consequences of his actions.

DuVernay matches the many conflicts of the screenplay with genius direction.  She finds the perfect emotional and verbal beats to switch off from one conflict to another.  One dizzying sequence shows just how many conflicts are in play as Dr. King focuses on an overall strategy, the police conspire with the townspeople for their response, Johnson tries to keep Wallace and the Selma authorities under control while reeling Dr. King in, and the local organizers wonder if they need to break away from Dr. King.  DuVernay establishes each location clearly and cleanly with recognizable geography then lets each party cut into one another across the frame.  The fight for Civil Rights was not so unified, and the internal conflicts are just as important as the external.

All of this is led by a remarkable performance from David Oyelowo.  He plays Dr. King as someone who demands his words to be given their proper weight and context.  There is no easy soundbite to pull away from his performance in Selma because he's angry, tired, and knows that this is just another fight in a long war.  But the big surprise comes from Carmen Ejogo, who plays his wife.  Too many times in these films women are delegated to fretting housewives ( The Theory of Everything was bad at this).  Ejogo plays Mrs. Coretta King with the authority of a top-notch Lieutenant, willing to acknowledge the toll the struggle is taking but not letting it stop her resolve in meetings with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), or from arguing back when Dr. King lashes out in a moment of jealousy.

That equal opportunity for conflict between Dr. and Mrs. King speaks to the larger battle on display in Selma.  Dr. King's final words remind us, much like the last year has, that the war is far from over and DuVernay does not shield the audience from this reality.  "Hands up, don't shoot," was just as much a reality in Selma fifty years ago as it was in Ferguson months ago.  If history is going to repeat itself again, Selma has some suggestions on how we might change.

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Tail - SelmaSelma (2014)

Directed by Ava DuVernay.
Screenplay written by Paul Webb.
Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, and Colman Domingo.

Posted by Andrew

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