Left to right, foreground: Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, and Stephan James plays John Lewis in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films
A film about Martin Luther King, Jr. has a few obstacles to overcome at the outset. For one thing, much of the audience already knows the story, and for another thing that story ends in the main character’s assassination. But perhaps a more difficult obstacle is the perception that the film is like a serving of plain, unbuttered, unsalted vegetables–something you won’t enjoy and don’t want, but which you know you should have because it’s “good for you.” It is this perception that kept some audiences away from movies like last year’s 12 Years a Slave, and no doubt it will keep some from seeing the movie Selma. But in both cases, missing the movie is more than just a lost opportunity to absorb something you “should” watch; it means missing an excellent film with a compelling story.
I was fairly neutral in my expectations when I went to see Selma at the Chatham Orpheum Theater last week. I don’t read much in advance about the films I see, but it would have been impossible not to know that Selma was a potential Oscar contender. With that in mind, I had the slightly jaded expectation that it would be “that kind of film” – one Hollywood could get behind because it was good for everyone’s image and because it was just nonthreatening enough to embrace. But as the film unfolded, I was quickly drawn into something much better than that; something that made a part of history I already had strong feelings about become even more real to me.
Director Ava DuVernay does not shy away from the brutal realities, and her script, co-written with Paul Webb, does not tack on any false, feel-good moments to make us feel everything is okay. It’s not okay. In fact, in the current climate one cannot help but connect Dr. King’s words and methods with recent cases and Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere, despite the more complex circumstances of those devisive of cases.
More importantly as the film follows Dr. King from his Nobel Peace Prize win through the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, we meet a range of people who demonstrate moments of strength and often, moments of human weakness. No one really comes across as a pure hero in the comic book/Hollywood sense. This includes President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Even Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is revealed to be a human being with doubts, flaws, and weaknesses, particularly in his tense relationship with wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who is shown to be torn apart both by his infidelities (just hinted at, never shown) and the terrifying spotlight he has shed upon their family.
At its core, this is a film about politics and the push and pull between living one’s beliefs, controlling ego, and playing the game that needs to be played. Peppered throughout this story of power and playing politics, there are horrifying, true incidents of racist violence that are portrayed unflinchingly. I was shaken–literally jumped in my seat, in fact–very early in the film by something I knew, from history, was going to happen. It’s hard to describe such moments without destroying their impact for those who have not yet seen the film, but anyone who has seen it knows what I am talking about. (If you’ve already seen the film, I recommend checking out this NPR interview with the director for more details: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/08/375756377/the-sounds-space-and-spirit-of-selma-a-director-s-take). This is why for me, the Oscar nomination is confusing. The best things about this movie can be attributed directly to both the editing and the directing, so how can it be that Selma was nominated as Best Picture, and then have no other nominations other than for one song? What does the Academy think makes it the Best Picture?
Another point of contention out there is the criticism of how LBJ is portrayed. I was unaware of those criticisms when I went to see the film last Friday, so I wasn’t looking specifically at whether or not they were valid complaints. But afterward, when I heard and read these criticisms, I was surprised. LBJ is not portrayed as a bad guy or as someone with no interest in helping the civil rights movement. If that were true, I’d call it a major flaw in the film, but when I watched Selma, I felt it was very clear that he was a politician – the president, in fact – and so he was pulled in a lot of directions. The weakness in the portrayal, which is what I think has given rise to this criticism, is in Wilkinson’s performance, which lacks conviction (not to mention the right LBJ accent and manner).
In contrast, Oyelowo does an excellent job becoming Dr. King in this film, as does Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace. In addition, I was taken by newcomer Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights marcher who was brutally beaten and shot to death by Alabama State Troopers, while trying to protect his mother and elderly grandfather in 1965. In fact, the scene in which he is murdered was one that still shakes me, a week later.
Selma has flaws, for sure, but overall it is so well put together and so meaningful in what it represents that those flaws recede into the background. About midway through the film, I was consumed with the desire for my 11-year-old son to see the film. My son is white and he lives in a place where there are not many people of other racial backgrounds. This doesn’t make him racist and it doesn’t predict anything about who he is or how he will interact with people of the world, but it does shelter him from having to think about things that a black 11-year-old boy would have to be aware of. I don’t have to have “the talk” with my son, as African-American mothers do. And even just acknowledging this one reality, makes me ill.
I realize now that I was consumed with wanting him to see Selma because I feel it is a story about us – it’s our history, too– and I want him to have some context for understanding the dynamics in the world that don’t necessarily touch him here on Cape Cod. I have taught him about these things; we have discussed Ferguson and the Holocaust and other atrocities as they come into his consciousness, but I don’t know a better way to show him the historical context for the Black Lives Matter movement than through the medium of film. My hope is that he will get it, viscerally, feel it in his bones. I hope he will see how movies can be important and bring things to light that are hard to really fully imagine. And I hope it will help drive home the point that Dr. King’s message mattered then and still matters now.
It’s possible that he will get none of this from Selma, but I am at least looking forward to talking with him about it. While it is a disturbing movie (rated PG-13), if you have children over 11, I hope you’ll think about taking them to Selma, as well, if only for the potential conversations it may provoke.