How can a movie be made to do justice to the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama, one of the most significant moments in the history of the United States? Ask Ava DuVernay. How can an actor embody such a revered and important historical figure such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a realistic and poignant manner? Ask David Oyelowo.
With Selma, both DuVernay and Oyelowo deliver one of the year’s most powerful films. A rare movie that actually can provide a fresh and powerful look at three months that came to shape this country, Selma follows Dr. Martin Luther King in his attempt to ensure equal voting rights. After talks with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) break down, King takes to Selma where he plans a dangerous, but necessary march to Montgomery, Alabama. Despite roadblocks, trouble at home, and several tragic deaths, King and all those who followed him triumphantly complete the march and alter history by helping to convince LBJ to create legislation to allow for equal voting rights.
The story in itself is, of course, remarkable, but even a story so great about a movement so important does not always equal a great movie as we have seen. Selma is made great through its acting and ability to capitalize on powerful moments, to add to the story more than just what is taught in school. In many ways, Selma shed new light on the history of the Selma march, especially for those who don’t know the history all too well. For starters, LBJ was quite resistant towards MLK, pushing the Civil Rights Movement to the side. The constant portrayal of LBJ’s complacency towards the state of the movement only served to enhance the importance of the march to Selma.
Furthermore, the FBI’s involvement in watching and even considering assassinating King added a whole new wrinkle to the movie. The use of direct quotes from FBI documents was a fantastic directorial choice by DuVernay to highlight the fact that MLK was not widely considered to be the saintly figure we see him as today. The strained relationship between Martin and his wife Coretta was another aspect that created more depth to the movie. However, Selma did not just present these difficulties in their relationship, but worked to explain them. How can they expect to have a normal relationship when he is risking his life every day, or when there are death threats to not only him but their entire family being called into their house nightly? It is these more complicated parts of the Martin Luther King story that you don’t get in a history class.
Furthermore, short of watching footage of the actual Dr. King, David Oyelowo is the closest those of us under 47 will ever get to seeing or hearing the great reverend. We have all heard MLK’s voice hundreds of times in his “I Have a Dream” speech, and Oyelowo had King’s booming and commanding voice down almost perfectly. Imitating a great orator is no small task, but Oyelowo did that and more in this career-defining role.
Like director Ava DuVernay, Oyelowo also did his best to portray the emotions of the movement as a whole during pivotal moments. In the end, it is these few critical scenes — mainly the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the death of James Reeb, and the final triumphant crossing of the bridge — that the audience will take away with them.
The murder scenes are portrayed in such a way that the audience can truly feel the emotional impact of the murder rather than the impact of the murder itself. In many cases, movies focus on the act itself, the victim, the ensuing gore. This is not what you see in Selma. Instead, the focus is on the emotional toll that these two senseless murders have on all those in the movement. During the murder of Jimmie, the focus is on Viola and her reaction of pure, unbridled sadness. In the aftermath, it is Dr. King who is trying to be strong despite the tragedy, but, even he is still at a loss for words.
After James Reeb is killed, the focus is on the shift in mood within the house where King and fellow activists hear the news. In this instance, as well, King has trouble articulating, which is so evident because throughout history few have ever spoken as eloquently as MLK. In the end, we get to see King articulate strongly in the triumphant final scene of the movie. The final and perhaps best example of superior directing comes at the end, as clips from the actual march from Selma are shown in black and white, behind Oyelowo’s speech in Montgomery.
Just as DuVernay was able to accurately capture the great sadness after violence and killings, she succeeded equally, if not more, in portraying the exultant happiness shared by all those during the march. And looking forward, the notes on what the characters did after the march provided great context as to how pivotal this moment was in American history, for the country and for all those who actually walked the 54 miles and endured the hatred and the violence.
Without the Selma march and without the courage and perseverance of Dr. Martin Luther King and all those around him, it is hard to say just how long LBJ would have let the Civil Rights Movement “wait”.
Looking back, the lack of equality in the United States at that time was deplorable. Yes, our country is still not perfect to this day. But it is because of people like Dr. King and events like the Selma march that people have the courage to stand up for their rights today. It was about time a movie was made about these vital and transformative three months in the history of our country, if only to commemorate all those who endured, and, in the end, changed the course of history for the better. And like with the march itself, the end result of Selma the movie was a thing of beauty, thanks to DuVernay, Oyelowo, and company.