Directed by Ava DuVernay based on an original screenplay by Paul Webb. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. Highly Recommended by both me & Richard.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a triumph of Activist Filmmaking. It is not only one of the best films of 2014, it is also one of the most significant films of this decade. Timed for worldwide release in early 2015, exactly fifty years after most of the historical incidents it depicts, Selma arrives in December on selected screens in large American metros even as “Hand Ups, Don’t Shoot,” and “I Can’t Breathe” protests continue on our streets and on our TV screens. Who could have imagined this way back when people in business suits were calculating the ROI of a potential Oscar campaign?
Let’s be clear, though, Selma is a narrative feature—not a documentary—and it is told from a very specific point-of-view, the POV of an African-American woman too young to have been alive in 1965, but old enough to know how important that year was in the “arc of the moral universe.”
To make sure that we all understand that the story we are about to see has world-historical significance, DuVernay opens her film on December 10, 1964. We are in a luxurious hotel suite, and a distinguished-looking man is fussing with his clothes. “It’s not a ‘tie,’ Martin,” says his beautiful companion. “It’s an ‘ascot.’” Martin is Martin Luther King, Jr. and the person soothing him is his wife—Coretta Scott King—a 37 year old woman with four young children at home who became a widow long before DuVernay took her first breath. Because we know this—because we know that this magnificent man will be assassinated soon after the events depicted on screen—this scene of them alone together—at what must have been one of their happiest moments—is almost unbearably poignant.
DuVernay’s genius is to show us exactly why the real Martin Luther King, Jr. (who died in 1968) and the real Coretta Scott King (who died in 2006) were able to bear this heavy load, and pay a price which they can both feel imminent in their bones just as surely as we know it today from our history books. Martin and “Corey” are in Oslo so he can personally accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and he will receive this enormous honor in large part because four girls were murdered in a church one fine Sunday morning in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama (just one year earlier). The violent explosion that tears their young bodies apart on screen is shocking; it is DuVernay’s Crie de Coeur, and her announcement that she will spare us nothing in the film that follows. Only then does the narrative of the three Voting Rights Marches of 1965 in Selma, Alabama begin.
Much has already been written about the Selma backstory, and much more will no doubt be available online when the film opens wide in the USA next month (just before the 29th annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—which has been a federal holiday since 1986—on Monday, January 19). Suffice it to say that Selma did not have an easy birth. A script by Paul Webb—a heretofore unknown British screenwriter—had been circulating for some time, and a series of well-known directors negotiated with various potential cast members until one-by-one, they all gave up.
As a film critic, none of this is my concern. My only job is to tell you whether or not the finished product is worthy of your time and attention. But as I give my own emphatic affirmation of Selma, I am led to invoke a favorite Yiddish proverb: “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.” (Man plans and God laughs.) Clearly a “Higher Power” was looking out for Selma, and it just wasn’t going to happen until all the right pieces were in place.
The first and most “right” piece is actor David Oyelowo, and it is no exaggeration to say that on the basis of looks and temperament, David Oyelowo was born to play Martin Luther King, Jr. on the big screen. But no one knew that in 2008 (the year Variety first reported interest in Webb’s screenplay). I actually saw David Oyelowo on screen in 2008 as “Muddy Waters” in Who Do You Love; he barely registered. I also saw him in supporting roles in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help in 2011, and in Middle of Nowhere in 2012, but none of these earlier roles prepared me for his outstanding performance last year in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
As “Louis Gaines,” the eldest son of “Cecil Gaines” (Forest Whittaker) and “Gloria Gaines” (Oprah Winfrey), Oyelowo actually does most of the historically significant “heavy lifting” in The Butler. While his parents watch the Civil Rights Movement unfolding on TV, Louis—the audience-surrogate—is spit on at lunch counters and targeted in buses. Beaten and imprisoned, Louis starts the 1960s as a well-bred college student but ends the 1960s as a militant Black Panther.
If I ruled the world, then David Oyelowo would have received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in February, but he wasn’t even nominated. In fact, the whole The Butler team was completely eclipsed by 12 Years a Slave, which was nominated for nine Oscars and won three (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress).
Just a few short months ago, all of this enraged me. From my POV, 12 Years a Slave is a deeply Conservative film which buries America’s racial issues in the Deep South in the Deep Past. There was something almost pornographic about watching (Oscar-nominated) Michael Fassbender taunting (Oscar-nominated) Chiwetel Ejiofor as—foaming at the mouth—he whipped the naked back of (Oscar-winner) Lupita Nyong’o. So much easier to despise those ancestors who brutalized their slaves in the mid-19th Century than to deal honestly with what our own relatives might have said or done when African-Americans insisted on their voting rights in the mid-20th Century.
But now I see that playing “Louis Gaines” in The Butler prepared Oyelowo to play MLK in Selma, just as surely as playing “Lord Mansfield” in the otherwise execrable Belle prepared Tom Wilkinson for his commanding performance as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. And The Butler also brought Oyelowo into close contact with Oprah Winfrey, who not only plays the key supporting role of “Annie Lee Cooper” on screen, but also became one of Selma’s guardian angels behind the scenes.
And way back in 2008, Ava DuVernay won a few audience awards for a documentary called This Is the Life, but she was still known primarily as a publicist. Her breakthrough came in 2012 when she won the Best Director [of a Dramatic Feature] Award at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere. She was the first African-American woman to win this prestigious award, and it was an instant catapult. When Oyelowo was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Middle of Nowhere later that year, he began lobbying for DuVernay to direct him in Selma… and here we are!
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
These are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965. See Selma on a big screen at your first opportunity, and you will understand, and you will believe.
Top Photo: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. at the foot of the Edmund Pettis G. Bridge in Selma, Alabama (1965).
Middle Photo: MLK and LBJ in a tense scene set in the Oval Office. Although some have criticized the veracity of the relationship presented in Selma, to me it seems exactly right. LBJ was a politician with conflicting priorities, but when push came to shove, he stood tall on the right side of history. This is a film about MLK–not a film about LBJ–but we must remember that LBJ also paid a heavy price for this stance (as did the members of the Democratic Party who voted with him).
Bottom Photo: The crowd obeys MLK’s call for a moment of prayer at the start of the second March.
Photo Credits: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures and PathZÿ.
The actual definition only requires two women with names who talk to each other about something other than a man. Therefore the answer is yes, because Carmen Ejogo (as Coretta Scott King) and Lorraine Toussaint (as Amelia Boynton) have a brief conversation in which Amelia gives Corey a moment of warmth, encouragement, and tacit understanding.
But is this enough? When asked, I always say that if a film that is 90 minutes or more can’t show women together for at least one minute (= 60 seconds), then fugettaboutit.
But in this case, I’m inclined to be a bit more sympathetic. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s quandary in The Hurt Locker (which had no significant female characters), DuVernay does show that many women played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Even if we only see them on the sidelines in Selma, by naming all of these women in the credits, we can easily look them up later and find out exactly who they were and what they all did for the cause.
Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper, Mahalia Jackson, Viola Luizzo, Diane Nash–these were real women, and they were there!
BONUS: For an excellent background piece, read this Louis Menard article “The Color of Law” in the New Yorker magazine.
GRACE NOTE: Martin Sheen plays a small but critical role in Selma as “Judge Frank Minis Johnson.” I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d like to think that DuVernay cast Sheen in this role–as one of the “good guys”–to remind us of the role he played in Gandhi, and thus to remind us of the inspiring role Mahatma Gandhi played in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Watch this clip from Gandhi, and the resonance will be clear.
The reporter Sheen played in Gandhi (based on the life of a real reporter named Webb Miller) has an essential role in this Oscar-winning Gandhi BioPic, and so do the reporters in Selma… But do reporters play the same role today in the era of social media and infotainment…? It’s an important question and Sheen’s presence in Selma helps us ask it. Thank you, Ava!