Biopics are the new Gods of Oscar bait. This year alone we have seen Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Chris Kyle given the big film treatment, their deeds and glories emblazoned in films that seem tailor made to try and attract the attention of award committees and glitzy parties. And into that increasingly familiar looking dogfight of lives portrayed onscreen comes Ava DuVernay’s Selma, hoping, perhaps, to follow the same trail that the similarly themed 12 Years A Slave blazed last year. But biopics can be tricky, all too often falling into a glorification trap where the main focus receives (sometimes literally) a standing ovation with little depth in the approach. Selma must tackle a true giant of the 20th century in one of the most pivotal moments of his life and the movement he led. Was Duvernay capable of avoiding the familiar path of the biopic, and forge something much more worthwhile?
Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), seeking the right time and place to push the civil rights movement into the national consciousness once more, finds his opportunity in the bitterly segregated state of Alabama, where bigoted Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) oversees a culture of unrelentingly hostile racism. There, black citizens struggle to gain the basic right to vote, unhelped by a prevaricating Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House. Battling private doubts about his crusade, spied on by the FBI and with his marriage to Correta (Carmen Ejogo) crumbling, King launches into a struggle of nonviolent protests and marching, hoping to bring the eyes of the world down on the town of Selma.
Selma sucks you into its world right from the off, the film opening with a close up shot of Oyelowo’s face, as he practises a speech he is soon to recite while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a startling beginning, but one that fits: Selma, while about the civil rights movement at this critical time, is all about Martin Luther King. And this is to be a proper biopic, warts and all. In these opening moments, we see two conflicting sides of King clearly: the great orator of popular remembrance, and also a man very much uncomfortable in his current situation and how he is perceived. That the film opens with him accepting such a prestigious prize is also a very effective mood setter: many other films would have had a moment like this at its conclusion, setting up that standing ovation I mentioned above. Instead, Selma starts off from this point, with the Nobel Prize little more than an unwanted accoutrement to King, who fears how he may look, living “high on the hog”.
His wife, Coretta, is there to soothe him, but there already are the strains of a union reaching a breaking point. It’s rare that an opening scene is crafted so effectively, both in introducing characters, introducing relationship dynamics, and setting up some of the most crucial themes. And DuVernay doesn’t stop there, as a litany of powerful moments pass by in the opening minutes. After King’s introduction, the tranquillity and normality of a number of young black schoolgirls discussing hair styles and beauty tips is shattered by a sudden and terrible explosion, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Like so much of the racist violence in the film, it’s a sudden and brutal thing, which seems so unnatural to us, even in the world depicted.
But the racial problems of America’s southern states, not least the Alabama of cruelly and unabashedly racist George Wallace, go behind the overtly bloody acts of casual violence. Just as effective is the sight of Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper trying to register to vote, only to be forced to jump through some verbal hoops, in a test she cannot possible pass. She faces this humiliation and open denial of her rights with both stoicism and pained reality etched on her face: she expected nothing different.
And that speaks to the central quest of King and his followers. It isn’t so much for the intangible concept of freedom, or even for the vote. The word King uses again and again is “dignity”. The black citizens of America want to be treated like human beings, to not be forced to bow down in a humiliating manner on every issue, to not be asked to wait by their President, to not have to accept the most demeaning kind of treatment. I mentioned, repeatedly, in my review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave that it was the dehumanisation practised by slave-owners towards their “property” that was one of the most galling and stomach churning things. While Selma doesn’t have the same level of physical abuse that 12 Years A Slave had, that same feeling is still there, in every insult, in every right gladly denied, in every brush-off, and in every manner in which a white ascendency attempts to treat the black underclass with indignity.
DuVernay’s film gets inside you with that image and brings out those emotions of dread, fear, disgust and sorrow, which must accompany such a story. The ugliness of racism in America during this time is on full show, never unbelievable and never too soft, and one of Selma’s great strengths is the manner in which it portrays and brings to life this ugliness. It’s an infection on every level, be it the crude bigotry of elected sheriffs on the streets or the sanctimonious dismissals of the highest of the land.
But this is also a biopic. The atmosphere is set brilliantly from the off, but it needs that central character and journey to keep the whole affair grounded. Just as in the opening scene, King’s activities are shown through two diverging paths. On the one hand, we have King the legend: the great speechmaker, the great civil rights leader. We are swept up with the watching audience when he gives his monumental speeches, we sympathise with his struggles and doubts. Supporters and marchers are beaten and killed, and we feel that sense of being torn in two on how to proceed. But always, King is the leader, the negotiator, the peacemaker, the driver of all that transpires. That journey is properly told, bringing to life the man we are familiar with from the newsreels and the echoes of his most famous words.
But the other path is, perhaps, the more enthralling one. Here is simply King the man: the neglectful husband, the absent father, the philanderer. In his home, King is a weak and powerless individual, whose life is dominated by the campaign and whose actions towards his family veer over a line of disgrace. The back and forth between King and Coretta is one of Selma’s strongest points, a vivid look at a marriage that cannot possible take the strain of what King has to live up to in public. DuVernay is to be highly commended for taking so much time to show this deeply flawed side of Martin Luther King, and to allow Ejogo to be the star of these moments as much as Oyelowo. Selma manages to deliver a portrait of King at this time in his life, that acknowledges both his strengths and his flaws, and to reconcile the two with each other. Great men can have bad sides, but that need not take away from their momentous deeds. Seeing this side of King, and the relationship with his wife, helps us to form a broader picture of the man and what drove him, and how his personal life was subordinate to his public one.
But Selma is not just about Martin Luther King, it is also about the men and women of the larger movement. None of them can come close to Oyelowo in screentime, but we do get some decent portraits nonetheless. Chief among them are people like Wendell Pierce’s Hosea Williams, or Stephen James as student organiser John Lewis. Just as DuVernay is willing to show good and bad sides of the main focus, so is she willing to show good and bad sides of the larger movement, its divides, its delays, its bitter debates about how to proceed and the doubts that come into many lines of thinking. Seeing this entity grow and evolve through the attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery is truly captivating. It’s helped by a brief one scene appearance of Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, the other side of the civil rights coin, the road not followed, which in turn leads to one of the best scenes between King and Coretta, sniping at each other over the more radical civil rights figure while King is behind bars.
Selma also takes frequent asides to look at “LBJ” and the administration position on everything that is happening. Much has been written about Selma’s depiction of Johnson and his relationship with King, which borders on adversarial. It seems as if DuVernay has chosen to make Johnson slightly more opposed to King and his movement than he was in reality, but in truth I did not find Wilkinson’s portrayal of the President to be all that unsympathetic. Johnson is depicted merely as a realistic politician, summed up by his declaration to King at one point that, while King has one big issue, Johnson must deal with “ a hundred and one”. He does set J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker in a great single-scene performance) on the civil rights movement with abandon but never does Johnson express an obvious opposition to increased civil rights, and he flat out insults George Wallace in one memorable scene, essentially warning that he will find himself on the wrong side of history. As such, the criticism of Selma on this score strikes me as many critics looking for things to complain about (and there are plenty of biopics about white people that do not get the same treatment, it cannot fail to be noticed).
Selma is a light enough film, and takes its time when it comes to depictions of the actual marches, including the aborted “night march”. There’s a slow boil escalation of tension, but in truth the last act of Selma might also be its worst, as the film becomes more than a little clunky by the realist depiction of the events in question. One cannot help but feel that a more seamless and engaging film might have consolidated three of the marches into two, and cut down on some of the more needless scenes towards the conclusion. It doesn’t leave a lasting mark on Selma, but the first two acts of the film had a decent flow, that was strangled by most of the last 40 minutes or so. The build to a cathartic and dramatic ending is one to be endured, but it is worth it to get there in the end, like any righteous movement.
DuVernay does tremendously well with the female characters at her disposal. Here is a moving and realistic look at a wife under pressure, living in the shadow of her famous and beloved husband, and dealing with all of the negativity that comes of that. Coretta is portrayed as a creature of immense patience and grace, doing what is expected of her even as she questions whether her relationship with King is worth holding on to. It’s a different era, when a separation might not have been fully possible, and there so much else to consider. Ejogo’s Coretta is a woman properly depicted as weighing all of those things, even as she finds herself sucked into supporting the movement more proactively. But even then it all comes back to her beleaguered marriage, she and King bitterly disagreeing over her meeting with a seemingly sympathetic Malcolm X. Coretta is more than just the woman keeping things afloat at home while King goes about his Herculean labours. She has agency, different shades to her character and a certain poise that makes her extremely memorable. Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper is the other main female player, in an evocative but unassuming role. Winfrey has precious few actual lines, but makes a big impact whenever she is actually on screen, from her painfully reserved rendition of the American constitution’s preamble when she tries to register as a voter, to her more loud and angry explosion outside the Selma courthouse. While the female characters of Selma do not get actively involved in the main plot to the same extent as the male characters, they still are a very decent example of how to portray women in films of this type.
For a film such as this, it is a requirement that the central role be acted to the utmost. Oyelowo is the man given that task, and he performs it to the very best of his ability. Simply put, for the two+ hours that Selma extends too, Oyelowo becomes Martin Luther King, body and soul. His every expression and utterance is like looking at contemporary footage, and he perfectly captures everything that made the man so memorable. This is clear in no better form than when he imitates King’s powerful oratory. Aided by incredible strong scriptwork, Oyelowo builds up the power of his words bit by bit, stringing the audience along, moving to a crescendo of emotional declarations and heart swelling affirmations, like a conductor with an orchestra. It is here, in these moments, that you really come to understand just how messianic a figure King was.
But it is in other ways that Oyelowo succeeds too. Just as the film chooses to go down two paths in regards to King, so does Oyelowo’s performance. At home, with Coretta, his King is a more reserved, contrite, and ultimately frustrated figure, one trapped between the disapproval of his spouse and the expectations that await outside his front door. Here he struggles to form the right words, words that come so easily to him elsewhere, save when he is forced to confront the grieving relatives of those shot down for his cause. In both depicting the popular image and the private reality, Oyelowo gives us one of the most tremendous performances of the biopic genre, easily the best depiction of King onscreen, and surely one of the stand-out piece of work you are likely to see this year.
In that, he has to be matched by Ejogo. She’s soft spoken, reserved, bitter and just waiting to explode. The role of Coretta requires a lot, and a lot to be done quietly. Ejogo succeeds, in a performance that frequently matches the power of Oyelowo, even as it clashes off of him. She has to make us believe that Coretta was a woman who would come back to King despite his failures as a husband and a father, a person who could see the good in him beyond the movement. I think she pulls it off, and rather well too.
The rest of the cast are firmly in the supporting camp, but I don’t have a bad word to say about anyone. James, Pierce and Common are the pick of the movement players, playing the apostles of King but all given the chance to show themselves as full of agency of their own. Winfrey, following up on her great turn in The Butler, plays Cooper with aplomb, an obvious quiet anger in her that explodes vividly outside of the Selma courthouse. Wilkinson is great as LBJ, showcasing perfectly a three dimensional US President, struggling to reconcile his support for King’s ambitions with political realities. Tim Roth, with Micahel Papajohn and Stan Houston behind him as some of Alabama’s racist law enforcers, is measured and buyable as the grotesquely bigoted George Wallace, easily made the villain of the piece. Special mention should also be given to Henry G. Sanders, playing a grieving grandfather of Jimmy Lee Johnson, a young man murdered by police during the night march, whose scene in a morgue with a near speechless King is one of the most heart wrenching of the film.
DuVernay, with Bradford Young on cinematography, has crafted a really well put together film on the visual front. Young has a reputation for preferring a hands off approach when it comes to lighting, and it shows here. No ostentatious colours or typical sixties sheen, more greys and blacks and visceral looking landscapes. Selma is a film marked the darkness of asphalt roads and drab school interiors, with more intimate scenes, like those between King and his wife, shrouded in an oppressive darkness. The first shot lays out King in a portrait style, and the DuVernay/Young team are quick to focus the camera up on Oyelowo for much of the rest of the film, allowing the performance to come through wonderfully. This is exemplified in no better arena than any moment when King gives one of his famous speeches, as the camera flits back and forth between his commanding presence and the enraptured audience watching him.
But there are lots of other nice touches when it comes to the visual direction. Inside his own home, King is a stranger, as his wife must find common items like rubbish bags for him, even as they talk of grander things, Coretta holding them out to Martin from across the room. Confederate symbols are everywhere when it comes to the racism of the south, a clear and appropriate connection drawn with the sins of the past being ignored and even celebrated, in the future. Wallace and his, ahem, confederates are sometimes portrayed with slightly skewed “Dutch” angles as well, to further show them and their philosophy as warped. The FBI’s surveillance of King and his followers is typed up on screen in jarringly impersonal phraseology, a direct and brilliant contrast with the actual human events they are taking about.
And when it comes to the really important moments, namely the marches, the visual work of Selma is also a success. Things start small, outside the courthouse, and then confused and chaotic with the night march. But when the civil rights movement heads towards Montgomery, DuVernay is sure to show a visual build-up of power, like a rocket readying for takeoff, with every succeeding march. First they take over a sidewalk, then half of the road, then the entire street: the movement can’t be stopped, and dignity is near. Towards the conclusion, skilfully blending the line between fact and fiction, DuVernay introduces actual archival footage of the march to Montgomery, as if to remind the audience that the story they are seeing is real, and dealt with real human lives.
Paul Webb’s script (though DuVernay apparently co-wrote the film, going uncredited due to some strange contractual issue) is immensely strong and powerful, capturing the distinctive voices of the people involved, and giving the cast all of the help that they need to make these characters come to life. The wordplay is real and full of humanity, in both good and bad parts. King’s speeches are a double triumph of screenwriting, both in the emotional effect they will have on an audience, and in the fact that they had to be re-written from what King actually said due to copyright issues. One cannot help but be swept up in the furore as King declares that the injustice they face is intolerable: “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!…We will not wait any longer! Give us the vote! We’re not asking, we’re demanding! Give us the vote!”
But in quieter moments, the script also shines. King and Coretta’s confrontation on his infidelities is couched in suitably subtle words: she does not ask if he has cheated, but if he “loves” any of the women he has been unfaithful with, a much more deep-feeling question, and King awkwardly has to pause and think about it. When the two bicker over Malcolm X, King is the one slinging hurtful words, claiming that Coretta has become enamoured of the more radical man, words that a hard stare instantly make him regret. But the good scriptwork moves beyond those two such as LBJ viciously lets loose and asks George Wallace “Are you trying to shit me, Governor Wallace? Are you trying to fuck your president?” There are even moments when some dark levity can enter proceedings. As the first march tires to get past the Edmund Pettus bridge, Hosea Williams, staring ominously at the Alabama River underneath, asks John Lewis, “Can you swim?” Even there though, the script is quick to get back to the point, as Lewis points out that he grew up with no swimming pool available to him because of his skin colour.
Lastly on that point, the script simply soars in combination with the performance of the cast. It is impossible I think for someone to watch the conclusion, of King and the movement’s victorious moment outside the State Capitol in Alabama, and not be moved by the savage denunciation of class warfare in America, and the “lie” that is perpetrated through it: “When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because you shall reap what you saw. When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because no lie can live forever.”
Jason Moran’s debut score is fairly understated for the most part, to the extent that you probably won’t even remember any of it after the credits of rolled. The actual music choices are a bit better, with some uniquely chosen contemporary tracks, a mix of jazz and soul, to add the right flavour to the atmosphere. Much attention, and award nominations, have been garnered by John Legend and Common’s “Glory”, a credits track that mixes a Gospel feel in its chorus with more modern hip-hop in its verses, with references to present day events like the Ferguson riots and protests. It’s a decent track, and its message of the events in Selma tying into modern day equivalents is an important one to make. In fact, it actually provides just the right note to end your experience on, lest you think that the victory for civil rights at Montgomery was the end of all the trouble. After all, John Legend’s line is “One day, when the war is won, we will be sure”. I find it rare enough for films to actually pull that off with their credit music, an under-appreciated auditory aspect of film.
Selma ends on a mixed note (and listen, if you’re worried about spoilers, you didn’t do enough history in school). King succeeds in his nominal goal – the sight of LBJ parroting the “We shall overcome” maxim is a quaint mixture of moving and awkward – and even manages to effect a partial repair of his marriage. But problems remain: King is open about his acceptance of death, a scenario that is painfully likely to come for him much sooner rather than later, as it proved. Even in the midst of a standard “What happened after” text crawl for numerous characters, DuVernay stows the triumphalism, noting the fate of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights marcher murdered by KKK members just hours after King’s “How long, Not long” speech that forms Selma’s conclusion.
But you can’t help but be engrossed by that very speech, which invokes the eternal spirit of optimism that the civil rights movement lives upon, having gotten as far as the very gates of power in George Wallace’s Alabama. King, and Selma, closes by repeating the first verse and chorus of the “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” (“Mine eyes have seen the glory…”), a Civil War song that might cause the audience to think of Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln.
That was another, very different and distant, side of the civil rights struggle, one concerned almost entirely with white men deciding the fates of blacks. Selma, in the story it tells, forms a worthy contrast to that film, as a depiction of the African-American community coming together to strive for greater rights on their own power, nearly a hundred years after Lincoln’s efforts propelled the journey. Too many films and other media go down the “white savoir” route when it comes to the topic of race relations – even 12 Years A Slave, which might have been better served altering parts of the historical reality when it came to its ending – but Selma is a breath of fresh air in that respect, a film that puts black men, women and children at the forefront.
It’s brilliantly written, entrancingly shot and directed, features good music and provides a showcase for one of the best performances of a real-life figure, well, ever. Oyelowo makes Selma so much of what it is, and even though the rest of the cast is similarly stellar, they all sort of pale in comparison to the triumphant portrayal of King, which is worth the price of admission alone. Captivating, emotional, cathartic and important, Selma is biopic of the highest calibre, and the kind of film that will live long in the ages. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and StudioCanal).