ONE DREAM CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.
When Ava DuVernay was hired to direct this movie, which would become an explosive breakthrough for her after a few independent films, she focused on Martin Luther King’s speeches. She didn’t have the right to use them in Selma because the King estate had licensed the copyright to DreamWorks and Warner for a not yet produced film by Steven Spielberg. DuVernay decided to write new speeches for “her” King that would come as close to the real thing as possible, in content and style. She took that challenge seriously, and David Oyelowo’s deliverance of them provides some of the film’s most powerful moments.
In 1964, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) accepts the Nobel Peace Prize and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signs the landmark Civil Rights Act. But the struggle for the discrimination and violence to end for African-Americans is far from over. They are still being murdered by white supremacists in the South when King visits Johnson in the White House and tells him that legal action is needed on the right to register as a voter. Even though King tries to make the President understand how instrumental that right is in the actual process of crushing Southern racism, Johnson tells him that he needs to focus on other issues at the moment.
Disappointed but undeterred, King and his followers set their sights on the small city of Selma as an appropriate venue for a showdown with the white authorities…
Vivid, exciting and heartbreaking
The least successful part of this film may be the depiction of the King marriage, challenged by the civil-rights leader’s dangerous commitment to the cause and his infidelities. There are times when DuVernay hits narrative bumps and events fly by a little too fast. We don’t really feel like we learn much about the relationship between the Kings at all. Still, this is on the whole a triumph.
DuVernay reduced Johnson’s part in the original script and focused on those brave men and women who made the now iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, defying the violent response from Alabama state troopers. The film is vivid, exciting and heartbreaking, with a majestic, defining performance by Oyelowo as King and many fine supporting efforts, including from Brits Wilkinson and Tim Roth as two Southern political legends on different sides of the struggle, and Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, the former nurse who had the pleasure of punching the vile sheriff Jim Clark during a demonstration. The film wasn’t properly recognized at the Oscars, but many scenes are very effectively staged by cinematographer Bradford Young, such as King’s mesmerizing speeches, the horrors of the Edmund Pettus Bridge clashes (the whip emerging from a cloud of tear gas!), and a scene where King and Johnson talk underneath a portrait of George Washington, founding father and slave owner.
Johnson scholars considered the portrait of the President as reluctant to do what was necessary unfair. Indeed, the civil-rights legislation wouldn’t have happened without him. But DuVernay made a creative decision that works very well for the film – and it isn’t a documentary. She doesn’t have to report all the facts. DuVernay didn’t want to make a “white savior” film. That’s what Spielberg did with Schindler’s List (1993) – but in that case the Oskar Schindler story was too good to ignore.
It’s never about recreating history in the “correct” way. It’s always about finding the dramatically most interesting angle. If everything else, including historical relevance, comes together as beautifully as in Selma or Schindler’s List, you should be grateful.
Selma 2014-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Paul Webb. Cinematography: Bradford Young. Song: “Glory” (Common, John Legend). Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Tom Wilkinson (Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi… Common, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Brad Pitt. At one point, Lee Daniels was set to direct with Hugh Jackman, Robert De Niro and Liam Neeson in the cast.
Oscar: Best Original Song. Golden Globe: Best Original Song.
Last word: “I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical… I didn’t want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim [Roth] has talked about every actor has to love the character that they’re playing in some way, and in the time that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot to love in [George] Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.” (DuVernay, Rolling Stone)