Within the first five minutes of Selma, I knew that it was going to be an uncompromising film. In those first five minutes, there is a tender scene between Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta, as Dr. King prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. The couple has a conversation about the importance of the event, and about how far they have come, but also how far there is left to go. This is followed immediately by a church bombing that rocked me in my seat. Those first two scenes set the tone for the entire film.
To simply describe Selma as a biopic of King would be a gross understatement. Yes, the conventions of the biopic are there, but it completely captures the essence of not only the man but why his ideas and struggle grabbed the world’s attention.
It would have been very easy for screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay to whitewash Dr. King’s story, sanitizing it of the unsavory character flaw that has been burnished from his great legacy over the years. They don’t take the easy way out, though, and King’s marital infidelity remains intact. Just as the audience is forced to confront the ugliness of racism and bigotry exemplified by that bombing scene – and other gut wrenching scenes of violence – Webb and DuVernay make us confront the fact that King was mortal, with failings and imperfections like the rest of us. The obvious reason to do this is to draw a more complex portrait of Dr. King, revealing his personal struggles alongside his fight for greater social justice. The film is exponentially richer for it.
The failing of many biopics is that they bite off more than they can chew, trying to weave the complexities of an entire life into the span of two hours. Think films like Walk the Line and Ray. While they can still be entertaining and give you a sense of the person they are chronicling, often they must depend on generic shortcuts that prevent them from really getting beneath the surface of the subject. Selma stands in direct opposition to this. Set just before and during King’s marches in Selma, Alabama in 1965, the film focuses on this period to create a microcosm of King’s entire march for justice, a march with strong connections to the ongoing problems African Americans face to this day.
The entire film is a rebuke of the misguided notion heard today that, because we have a black president then racism must be over, and all our problems concerning it have been overcome. This is achieved by showing that even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been signed, the marches and actions taken by black activists in 1965 were necessary to make real the symbolic advances that were won. Although that act officially ended segregation in the country, African Americans still found it virtually impossible to register to vote in much of the South. This is a direct parallel to laws that have been passed within the last couple of years regarding voter identification, making it clear the fight is not over and some lawmakers are intent on keeping certain voting blocks away from the polls. King’s fight was for the right to register to vote, and the current battle is to ensure that the right itself, having been won, isn’t made more difficult to exercise.
Selma also has something to say about the importance and strategy of direct action, both then and now. A common misconception about direct action that exists today is that strikes, protests, marches, sit-ins, and all the rest spring out of the ground fully formed and are completely spontaneous. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Selma dispels that notion completely. In one scene, civil rights activists are arguing over Selma being the right place to stage a march. King makes the case that it is, because the local sheriff is a bully, who, if provoked, will make a scene that will force the nation to pay attention. He describes another city that didn’t achieve the kind of agitation they needed, since the sheriff there didn’t fight their protests. This scene shines a light on the falsehood that all civil rights activists today are charlatans just trying to make trouble for their own personal gain. To be sure, opportunists are everywhere, but that doesn’t mean people genuinely committed to social change don’t also have to make use of media and public outrage to affect that change. Rosa Parks was not just in the right place at the right time, which is the prevailing conventional wisdom. She was an agitator with a purpose.
But Selma is not overly didactic, or simply a collection of philosophical arguments. Much of the film is a visceral, violent, and unsettling experience. The brutality of those opposed to the civil rights movement is shown in stark relief, especially in the sequence dramatizing what would eventually become known as Bloody Sunday, Dr. King’s first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery.
One of the main characters of Selma is now US Congressman John Lewis, a personal hero of mine, and an eyewitness to that event. I have heard the details of what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge many times, and Lewis’s oral description of that day is enough to give me chills. Seeing the recreation onscreen moved me to tears. I sat in the theater and openly wept as the police savagely beat the peaceful protesters as they tried to march for their right to vote. It was the most moving experience I’ve had in a movie theater in the last year, maybe in a decade. This is why we go to the movies.
As the late Roger Ebert once said, “…the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." Selma is more than just the portrait of a great man. It is also a testament of the human experience and a way for us to connect to one another. DuVernay had a crystal clear vision of the story she wanted to tell, and she tells it with beauty, power, and grace.