The manner in which the Civil Rights Movement is typically depicted in American media is problematic to say the least. One is quite frequently presented with a picture of a clearly defined struggle between right and wrong with a foreordained and definite outcome complete with a happy ending. Narratives such as these tend to create overly simplistic narratives with little nuance between and within the constituencies represented. Selma, to its great credit, manages to avoid this trap.
What we have with Selma is a compelling and complex narrative of a seminal moment and leader in the Civil Rights Movement that has its microscope calibrated the precise correct amount for the story being told. The narrative is broad enough to place the proceedings within the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement and American politics, but specific enough to examine key aspects of it in depth without painting with too large a brush. In your average Civil Rights film, Dr. King and company would have marched with little to no resistance with change resulting. What Selma provides is a taste of all that was required to bring that event into existence. Events such as the Selma march don’t simply happen, they’re brought about by organizing and political maneuvering.
One of the most effective aspects of the film is how it highlights King’s acumen as a leader. There exists an image or myth in the United States of a saintly Martin Luther King who willed Civil Rights into existence by sheer force of decency and rhetoric. All too rarely is the story of a hard-nosed, shrewd, tactical, politically astute organizer and leader told. Selma is that story. Here we see King on the ground, planning and debating with his lieutenants, organizing events in Selma to achieve their optimal political and symbolic impact. The march doesn’t simply happen because right-minded people decided to take a walk; it happened because of organization, mobilization, and King and his associates’ ability to use the power of media and negotiate with political power such as President Lyndon Johnson.
The vessel through which the audience views King’s actions is the remarkable David Oyelowo in a commanding performance. With footage and documentation of King being so ubiquitous, managing to be convincing as such a figure is a tall order indeed, and Mr. Oyelowo succeeds with aplomb. Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay manage to highlight Dr. King’s humanity, treating him not as a saint or as a merely symbolic actor but as the leader of a political organization with concrete goals and tactics to accomplish them. The picture also took care to present him as a multidimensional and flawed human being with personal shortcomings and concerns other than political. Rather than detract from his iconic status as a leader and moral exemplar, I would contend that showing Dr. King as a complex and flawed individual enhances and makes all the more remarkable his abilities as a leader and as a moral exemplar. At the very least, it makes for a more interesting screen character than the simplistic and sanitized characterization some of us are used to.
The most interesting and engaging aspect of the film was the give and take between Dr. King and Lyndon Johnson. A lot of negative attention has been paid to this area of the film recently, but in my estimation Johnson doesn’t actually come off especially unfavorably in Selma. The film is a cogent and astute meditation on the political maneuvering required to affect social change, from the activist and legislative standpoint. Johnson and King are both well aware of their respective roles and limitations; King uses his activism as a way to move the needle and Johnson himself towards legislation, while Johnson uses King as the “moderate” he can work with and present as the face of the Movement as an alternative to more radical voices and figures in the struggle for civil rights.
Regardless of LBJ’s actual desire for black progress, he and King’s methods and interests must necessarily be different given their respective roles (not necessarily oppositional, but occasionally so if interests conflict). King was well aware of this symbiotic dance required to affect the change he sought on the scale he envisioned and worked for. The presentation of the balance and conflict between various constituencies in relation to the march is the narrative hallmark of this feature. DuVernay does an excellent job presenting the forces at work behind the march and the concerns thereof, as well as the forces opposing it. She also does well to show both the march as a specific event in itself as well as placing it within the context of the larger Civil Rights struggle.
Selma is above all else a compelling political film and a portrait of a seminal moment in American history and the figures behind it. It takes on an era grossly underrepresented in American cinema and gives it the exhaustive, holistic treatment it deserves as a moment in history without oversimplifying or glossing over unsavory details. The result is a powerful and engaging cinematic experience on a level rarely reached by historical films in this country.