not in our stars, but in ourselves
1/52: A movie based on real events
Everyone knows that nice Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., right? That nice black man who was always so polite, dignified, white-friendly; who was very sadly assassinated; and who ensures that we all get a Monday off work each January. Yeah, the “I have a dream” guy – oh, yes, we like him, we know him.
Selma seeks to correct that popular, fluffy narrative. In late 1964 and early 1965 – after his famous “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington – he became involved in protests in Selma, Alabama. Selma was one of many towns in the Deep South where African Americans, though technically allowed to vote, faced endless obstacles and intimidation if they actually attempted to register to vote. As such, the white status quo remained unchallenged; the white perpetrators of violence against black people went unpunished by all-white juries; and eventually, the people of Selma called out for Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to come help them gain access to one of the most basic rights and principles upon which America was founded. Dr. King urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act, but President Johnson couldn’t, or didn’t want to, pass the bill right away. Protesters in Selma attempted to march to Montgomery on March 7, but were attacked by police as soon as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The media were present, and “Bloody Sunday” was beamed into American homes on the evening news. White supporters, many of whom were clergy, joined the protesters in Selma to stage a second march to Montgomery on March 9. This time, Dr. King was present as well – but once he reached the site of the first massacre, he knelt down in prayer, and turned the marchers back around. Finally, on March 15, President Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress; and on March 21, the march to Montgomery – with Dr. King and thousands of others – began and, at last, finished successfully in the state capitol.
These are the facts, as near as I can tell from Wikipedia; and Selma adheres to them. Oscar-season smear campaigns aside, this movie based on real events gets those events right. So how is it as a movie?
For one thing, its significance cannot be overstated in the historical narrative film genre, for one reason above all others: this is the first time anyone has ever made a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite his iconic status, despite his indisputable contributions to American society, despite his legendary gifts as an orator – he’s never been the star of his own movie. Ava DuVernay, directing her second feature-length film, seeks to find the man behind all those myths (and mists). She succeeds. Dear lord, she succeeds. King was a great man – only the most backwards, reactionary racist would argue otherwise – but he was complicated. Throughout Selma, we see him trying to dig deep within himself to find the strength to continue leading the civil rights movement. This isn’t hagiography – this is the agony in the garden, every day; as he sees people around him beaten (and killed); as he sees the fear and pain in his wife, Coretta, when she listens to daily threats against her, her children, her husband; as he faces the daily threat of assassination – whether of his person or of his character, as the FBI attempted to do for years. With all this pressing upon him, he still feels compelled to rise up. Selma doesn’t paint that as the noble act of a two-dimensional hero: it paints it as the necessity of a man – a great man, but just a man all the same – to use the power and the gift he’s been given to make things better for people who believe in him.
Beyond its accuracy as a portrait of King, Selma gets the complexities of the time and place right as well. Johnson was basically a good man, but one who had a very full plate when he became president (and then succeeded in keeping the presidency in the 1964 elections), and who didn’t agree with the pressing necessity of voting rights. He believed they were necessary; he just believed he had other things to deal with first. That, too, sounds accurate. Being president must be a nightmare of trying to prioritize which burning building to run into first – and, to Johnson’s credit, he did run into the Selma burning building in a somewhat timely manner. We also get to see Alabama’s unapologetically racist governor, George Wallace, who infamously proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The film depicts him as the kind of politician with which we’re stuck today: personally unpleasant, politically single-minded, willing to doom the whole state in the name of “traditional values.” (Traditional, you know, for the privileged white elite.)
Selma itself is perhaps slightly dramatized, but likely not by much: a hotel proudly proclaims on a plaque that it’s been serving whites only since 1855. When an older black woman attempts to register to vote, the white clerk tries to trip her up by insisting she recite the entire preamble to the Constitution; when she does so successfully, he asks her how many county judges there are in the state of Alabama, and she says that there are 67; then, he tells her to name them all. She sighs, and he stamps “DENIED” on her registration form. This is a dramatization, sure, but it’s not exactly far from the truth.
An additional touch that I think was quite insightful – and that ties Selma to the various protests of racial inequality in 2014 – was King’s knowledge that the media is vital to advancing the cause of civil rights. Middle-class white people in northern cities (especially on the coasts) never see this kind of outrage, and they won’t believe it if they simply read about it or hear it in a speech. They need to see it to believe it. King probably did understand that very well; in any event, he discusses it at length in the film. DuVernay used to be a publicist before she started making films, so I expect she understands this better than most directors. And of course, nothing has changed. After Michael Brown was murdered, mainstream media didn’t have much to say about the unrest in Ferguson – until it started blowing up on Twitter. While Selma uses mainstream media to its advantage, to shock white Americans into supporting them, we live in much less journalistically intrepid times. Reporters in Ferguson were able to report via social media, but it took months before the major news outlets began broadcasting any reports – let alone reports from those who were actually on the ground. I thought it was interesting that George Wallace – in the movie, at least, if not in real life – was angry that his state looked bad in the eyes of the rest of the country, thanks to the media spotlight; not angry that his state was policed by racist brutes. So too did that sham of a prosecutor, when announcing Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, take potshots at Twitter for forcing them to pretend to address their catastrophic abortion of justice. But I digress.
Now, I admit that some of these scenes and characterizations – while basically accurate, as far as I know – can be a little heavy-handed. It can happen with historical narratives, especially when the director has such deep respect for the subject. I don’t fault DuVernay for it one bit. However, regardless of your feelings about the direction (and again, let me reiterate: I think it’s very, very good, just not always done with the deftest touch), you should absolutely see Selma for its performances. Especially, and above all, David Oyelowo as Dr. King. There’s not a bad performance in the film – Tom Wilkinson is very good as LBJ, Tim Roth is a lot of fun to hate as Wallace, Carmen Ejogo is towering strength and delicate beauty as Coretta – but Oyelowo is a powerhouse. He doesn’t imitate King. He seems inhabited by him. It is, to use an overused term, a tour de force performance – worth the price of admission, and much more. It must be daunting to try to play someone who was such a monumentally important figure in the twentieth century, if for no reason other than extensive documentation of how that person actually looked, sounded, and moved. An actor playing Lincoln can read a book or two to get an idea, and run with it. An actor playing Julius Caesar can just interpret some Shakespeare and go nuts. An actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr., has an entirely different set of challenges: how to play this man, this great orator and leader, without seeming like a player on Saturday Night Live? Oyelowo does it. He does it beautifully.
That brings me to my final point. Oyelowo deserves whatever Best Actor trophies are out there. He takes an icon and makes him into a man. I thought Ralph Fiennes was very good in The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also thought Michael Keaton was very good in Birdman. I patently refuse to see either The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, so I have nothing to say about Marius Pontmercy or Smaug. These five are – I think – the front-runners in the Best Actor race for the Oscars. Tomorrow, we’ll find out. But anyway, I hope he wins. Hell, I hope he’s at least nominated. I hope DuVernay is nominated. I hope the film itself is nominated. I’m nervous, though, because even though Selma seems to be the kind of film Academy voters looooooooooove – it hasn’t really won much this year. It’s a biopic. It’s about a major historical event. It ties into a major movement in society. Usually, they eat this stuff up – see also those previously mentioned Whiteboy British Stories – but that hasn’t been the case with Selma. Why? It’s hard not to see it as entrenched racism, frankly, but I hope I’m wrong about that. At the Golden Globes, Selma won just one award – for the song “Glory”.
“Glory” is a pretty good song, so I’m not mad about that, but are they really going to reward this incredible achievement with tokens? Considering Hollywood’s usual tactics, I’m very afraid that they will – but again, I hope I’m wrong. In any event, I’m glad that there’s finally a biopic about Dr. King; I’m glad that everyone involved approached it with such passion and respect; I’m glad that Oyelowo exists; and I’m glad that, at the quiet, Tuesday-night screening I attended, a few audience members began applauding loudly. Normally, I think it’s stupid to applaud at the movies, unless the filmmakers are right there. I didn’t mind this time. I hoped that, if King is floating around somewhere on the mountaintop, he took a break from wringing his hands at the sight of how much more work there is to do, and smiled a little bit at the thought that some people have seen him for the human he was, and loved him for it. I hope that very much.