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Film Review: Selma

Selma (2014; Directed by Ava DuVernay)

Two contrasting shot compositions at key moments in Ava DuVernay’s Selma visually convey the discrimination that motivated the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America and the achieved goals of that Movement. But these shots say more about DuVernay’s filmmaking methods as practiced in Selma, and how she marshals and sharpens the cinematic language to tell this vital American story with maximized impact.

The first shot frames the first attempt in March 1965 by 500+ African-American activists to march from the city of Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest the systematic denial of voting rights to African-Americans in the state, and indeed in much of the South, in the wake of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act which made it legal for all African-Americans to vote in the United States. DuVernay’s camera pans dramatically and high through the girders of Edmund Pettus Bridge at the edge of Selma on the highway to Montgomery. The marchers, led by Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and (future Congressman) John Lewis (Stephan James), march down the right-hand lane of the two-lane highway towards the line of Southern lawmen and good ol’ boy vigilantes (the distinction between the two is not too keenly felt) arrayed to halt them. The left lane is empty, a stark metaphor for the separate and unequal system of segregation endured by every African-American at the time.

DuVernay lingers on the image just long enough for the audience to register its significance, but also enfolds it into a tense and galvanizing sequence that concludes with the brutally violent dispersal of the march by the local selma-movie-bridge-sceneauthorities. This composition is repeated for a later march attempt, which turns back at the bridge despite the state police standing aside to (apparently, but maybe not) allow the activists to pass. Its contrasting image comes near the end of the film, after Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the march’s organizers succeed in obtaining a court sanction to march and cross the bridge out of Selma in a great celebratory mass. Another crane shot, clear of the constricting visual tangle of the bridge girders, shows the marchers filling both lanes of the highway. Segregation, in the scope of this cinematic juxtaposition at least, has broken down. Freedom rings.

Selma in general is not nearly as forthright and triumphal about this key victory in the Civil Rights struggle, a direct catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which struck down the byzantine voter registration regulations that stood between African-Americans and the ballot box in much of the South. As seen through the eyes and filtered through the perspective of Oyelowo’s steely but thoughtful and conflicted King, the Selma march was an effort of Herculean proportions and an ordeal of Job-like suffering undertaken in order to glimpse little more than a thin blaze of light from a mere crack in the door. Selma and its oft-sainted protagonist never lose sight of the hard truth that this door was propped open by dead and mutilated black bodies beyond all measure of grief.

Selma paints a superbly detailed portrait of a Martin Luther King who, yes, achieved great things by displaying tremendous bravery, moral magnitude, and oratorical acumen (Oyelowo nails the crescendoing preacher’s cadence to such an extent that most won’t even notice that he does not utter King’s historical speeches, the exact text of which his estate did not permit to be used in the film). But Selma is not a biopic of a man, it is a panorama of a movement in one particular place and time; not a solo portrait but a group one, not A Polish Nobleman but The Night WatchKing is at the still centre of a historic ferment that will move, with or without him; one lively sequence sees King and his largely male entourage of civil rights leaders descend, chattering and joking, on the home of a local supporter in Selma, rowdy travellers putting up for the night at a hospitable roadside inn of sorts. He directs when needed, like any other of its leaders, but he also listens to other opinions and viewpoints, considers other approaches, tactics and trajectories. It’s a picture of Martin Luther King as a conciliator, a mediator, the hub of a branching tree of competing interests and directions.

This position as a core negotiating figure involves King facing not merely the African-American church leaders and student protestors of his own side, nor indeed the antagonistic forces of segregation arranged athwart them (as represented by Tim Roth’s well-oiled Alabama Governor George Wallace, they do not deign to even meet with a mere “nigra”, Nobel Peace Prize or no). He also navigates treacherous waters with LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), who is reluctant to expend more political capital on “Negro issues” after the Civil Rights Act, and with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who resents his frequent absences, his infidelities, and the mortal dangers that his activities expose him and his family to. Through struggles and obstacles, Oyelowo’s King is not certain of the correctness of his strategies or the loyalty of every one of his allies (especially the one seated in the Oval Office), but he never wavers in the righteousness of his divine mission.

The most prominent commentator on the African-American experience of the moment, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has viewed the non-violent resistance represented by Martin Luther King with a certain ambivalence, as did Coates’ major ideological influence, Malcolm X (who makes a brief appearance in Selma, played by Niger Thatch, meeting with Coretta Scott King in the interest of aiding a jailed King in Selma). Certainly, King’s unquestionably heroic dimensions for white Americans as well as for blacks has seen his transformation, a mere half-century since the events in Selma, into a mythic saint of justice.

This icon of King is stripped of the thorny and sometimes confrontational politics that kept him under FBI surveillance, in particular his insatiable desire to radically roll back structures of institutional discrimination and his open opposition to the Vietnam War. The sainted King is today frequently invoked rhetorically in order to defuse agitation for correction and change to the structures and tendencies of the American state and society that continue to exploit and dehumanize African-Americans. Why must black and liberal activists be so aggressive and sensitive about racial problems, which were fixed at such a high cost in the 1960s? Why can’t they be patient and visionary, trusting in hope and dreams like Dr. King? The meek shall inherit, remember?

Coates, like Malcolm X, mistrusts not merely King’s aim of changing White America’s mind about the plight of Black America, but his faith-based vision of multi-generational reform and improvement beyond his own violently-shortened lifetime. The portion of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that has become the most moving in light of his subsequent assassination in 1968 is King’s reference to not getting to the envisioned Promised Land with us, and an exchange with a Justice Department lawyer who supported his efforts near the end of Selma echoes this faith-rooted acceptance of his mortality before his God and the continuation of the movement after he is gone.

Coates, however, is an atheist who understands our life on earth as the entirety of our existence, and as a result agitates for tangible material improvements (ie. reparations, which King himself supported) to make up for America’s historical wrongs against African-Americans sooner rather than a distant wished-for future of magical equality and justice later. Coates’ term for the airbrushed fantasy of innocent white-bread prosperity and safety, which is always already built on the destruction of the black body, in Between the World and Me is the Dream, and the nomenclature cannot help but feel like a direct shot at King’s most famous rhetoric device, an attempt to dispel an obscuring fog of fuzzy optimism around the aims that both men share.

Selma does not generally indulge this fog of optimism, even if DuVernay concludes with an archival-footage celebration of the final, successful Salem-to-Birmingham before staging King’s triumphant speech in front of the Alabama State Capitol as a victorious coda. Aside from a shocking and then abstractly floating depiction of the Birmingham church bombing, DuVernay utilizes the language of cinema with directness and power. Selma is not soft-focus. It drags a tense moment of conflict and resistance from the fog of history into the blazing light of now. Selma presents to us an important juncture in the Civil Rights Movement not as a Dream but as a vital, visceral reconstituted reality that is impossible to look away from.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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