There is something almost otherworldly about the timing involved in the production of Ava Duvernay’s Selma, the new biopic (of a sort) about Martin Luther King Jr. (of a sort). Between the start of production in May of 2014 and its release at the end of the year (or early January for those outside of New York and LA), the United States has found race relations pushed to the fore after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the extended protests in Ferguson, MO. It seems to be the case that this specific point in time more than any other in the recent past is ripe for a film that looks back at clashes between the establishment and the disenfranchised during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Marketed as a biopic, Selma is much more akin to Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, a film where Martin Luther King Jr. (as portrayed by David Oyelowo) is without doubt the main character of the proceedings, but Duvernay and first time screenwriter Paul Webb are much more interested in the staging and historical significance of a specific event, namely the clash over voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1964, and King’s organization of a march from Selma to Montgomery amidst extreme racial tension in the area. King’s relationships color the retelling of the event, from marital issues with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) to internal clashes with the established black protest organization already in Selma as represented by John Lewis (Stephan James) and James Forman (Trai Byers) regarding how to go about the protest to negotiations with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to press for voting rights legislation. The climax of the film is centered around the marches themselves, and whether the protesters will be able to make their way to Montgomery to the doorstep of Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) so they can ensure their voices are heard.
The Lincoln approach is a good one here, as it allows for such care to be put into the individual moments without having to concern itself with how this fits into some grand puzzle of who Martin Luther King Jr was. There are no flashbacks to his life as a young man (a la Unbroken or The Imitation Game), no attempts to make him bigger than the moments. Much of what makes Selma such a breath of fresh air (that is, until that air is forcefully knocked from the lungs repeatedly and unmercifully) is the approach to make it clear that King Jr was not more important than what happened in Selma 50 years ago, nor was he the only actor responsible for it. The King of Selma is a man more than a titan, a man who does not always know the best move or make the correct decision. In another Lincoln-like flourish, much of the great pitch and moment happens behind the scenes. It is the meeting of the top brass of the SCLC in a church, or contentious arguments in the Oval Office between King and Lyndon Johnson. It is the shadowy, closed-doors conference with Wallace and Al Lingo (Stephen Root). These scenes are the ultimate fulcrum on which the film turns, and Selma has more in common with a procedural than The Theory of Everything.
Of course, Duvernay and Webb do not limit the action only to board rooms and churches. Eventually, the disenfranchised must march ever forward to their violent clash with the intolerant police force of Alabama, and Duvernay is unflinching in its portrayal. The imagery feels all too familiar in this current day, a tragedy in its own right, but such familiarity does not rob these moments of their power. Selma opens with a shock, and does not back down from providing further jolts, but it does so with weight and gravity. The action of the film, such as it is, has such a raw emotional resonance, it is so harrowing in its presentation that the stakes of the film could not possibly be more clear. Duvernay does not overindulge or overemphasize. All she must do is present. The film and the cast do such an excellent job establishing these characters that even the hint of seeing them in danger is heartbreaking. At times it almost feels like too much, but of course that is because it is too much for any individual or group to endure.
And at the center of it all is David Oyelowo. Selma is not purely about Martin Luther King Jr, but he is the lens through which the events are seen. Oyelowo’s quiet, yet forceful dignity provides the rudder that steers the movement but does not overwhelm it. When he must lead with his voice, Oyelowo is thunderous, and when he must comfort the grieving, he is tender. It is remarkable performance among a marvelous cast, heroes and cads all, and there is simply not enough time or space to give them the words they deserve. Such is the case with a film like this, one that is so emotionally harrowing and heartrending, so robust and exhausting that by the time it splices in archival footage of the march and displays its requisite title cards (one of the few vestigial remnants of the biopic, though never have they been so powerful), there is nothing left to do but cry. To say that Selma does everything right would not give it enough credit. It is a titanic cinematic achievement, one of limitless care, bottomless pathos and stomach-turning, depressing relevance. Society has a long way to go before a film like Selma can feel more like a piece of history than a commentary on how history has a tendency to repeat itself. Either way, it is an achievement impossible to be ignored.