Arts and Entertainment

Countdown to the Academy Awards: Selma is an incendiary masterstroke

By Brian Burns ’17

As a lead-up to the Academy Awards on Feb. 22, The Spectator will be publishing a series on the nominated films.  First up is Selma, nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song (“Glory” by John Legend and Common) but snubbed in the Best Actor and Best Director races.

Selma is an intelligent, bold and impassioned  chronicle of a crucial turning point for the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led Civil Rights movement.  The year is 1965, it has been years since the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech and the Voting Rights Act has been signed by LBJ.  However, the civil rights leader is still chipping away at the Jim Crow laws that prevent black citizens from voting in the South.  Dr. King sets his sights on Selma as the battleground for voting rights, and stages a protest that he hopes will convince the president, and the nation, of the importance of continued focus on the South. 

While primarily a character study of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  the film  succeeds due to its evocation of a time and a place, specifically the South as  the racially segregated states stood on the precipice of radical change.  The film captures the anger, the fear and the suffering that the men and women fighting on the front lines of change experienced, risking their lives for the hopes of a better tomorrow.  Most of all, Selma is notable for its suggestion that the fight of the civil rights leaders isn’t over, for the ghost of 1965 America still haunts the U.S. today.  Selma is a powder keg of a film that, once it explodes, proves that it deserves to etch its name in the American consciousness.

David Oyelowo embodies Martin Luther King Jr. convincingly at home and at the pulpit (which is even more astonishing a feat considering that the filmmakers were unable to use any of Dr. King’s speeches due to rights issues).  This representation of King is not a stoic leader, like the statues he inspired.  Instead, he is painted as doubting his own motivations, debating whether  his means of achieving freedom are worth the pain required.  In a scene in a jail cell in Selma, King asks one of his advisors whether his protest will achieve any real change.  “We build the path, brick by brick,” his friend responds, articulating that the ripple effects of King’s efforts will be felt in generations to come.  King’s desire to be reassured is a recurring theme in the film.  At one moment, he is about to embark on a trip to Selma despite his wife’s protests.  Deeply conflicted, he phones a famous gospel singer and asks her to sing to him for his comfort (this event actually occurred, as the time stamp on the film makes clear).

King is portrayed as thoughtful during the film.  The first shot of the film, which sees King finessing his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a telling sign of what is to come .  He relied not on instinct, but on careful preparation and deliberation.  At one point in the film, young activist John Lewis (now a Congressman from Georgia)expresses his disappointment with King’s reluctance to march on a day when the Selma police force leave the marchers a clear path.  King delicately explains how doing so at the time would be counterintuitive to the best interests of the marchers.  Oyelowo manages to make Dr. King’s thoughtfulness in between his speeches compelling (Oyelowo was snubbed for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, despite being the actor behind the first notable portrayal of Dr. King onscreen).

King is more than a methodical thinker in the film—he is shown in his roles as a husband and a friend.  When he arrives at the house in Selma where his group is staying, King and his fellow activists, which include talented supporting players, such as Common as James Bevel and Wendell Pierce from The Wire as Hosea Williams, poke fun at each other for not sticking to their diets.  His friends call him “Doc” and he is shown to be a democratic leader of men.    King’s relationship with Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma is more complicated.  This is the first mainstream movie to acknowledge Martin Luther King’s infidelities, something not necessarily learned in a textbook.  However, despite the distance this causes between husband and wife at one point in the film, King’s love for his wife is clearly deep.  The willingness to explore this aspect of King’s life demonstrates bravery on the part of the filmmakers—here was the man, warts and all.

Dr. King’s status as a master tactician is on display in Selma.  The film pulls back the curtain on why King’s method of nonviolence worked —not because of the protests themselves, but because of the combustible nature of their opponents’ reactions.  King emphasizes the importance of cameras at the scene, and his insistence on a global audience for his protest is proven to be correct when the Selma police force unleashes on protestors on Bloody Sunday.  Here, director Ava DuVernay’s camera is similarly untethered, charging into the fray.  On the Edmund Pettus bridge, blood flows, bones crackle and faces are slammed into the asphalt.  Men and women are struck down by policemen on horseback, lashed by the snap of whips and the blunt force of Billy clubs.  It is not even a fair fight—the cowards lash, out while the real heroes take the blows.  When the marchers return to town in defeat, a deep rage will inevitably ignite in the viewer.  One feels the desire to enter the frame and unleash their wrath on the Selma police force, to fight back.  Witnessing the beatings of Bloody Sunday makes Martin Luther King’s policy to resist resorting to violence seem like an even more courageous prospect.

Watching Selma, the viewer is taken back to Bloody Sunday and the outrage it inspired as its images were splayed across America’s TV sets.  However, the fact that that anger is not alien to this generation is a testament to the fact that America still has ways to go to achieve equality.  Selma comes in the wake of Ferguson, events which played out on the television sets of every living room in America.  Some shots in Selma of Billy clubs and tear-gassed civilians look as though they could have been taken yesterday.  Selma is in no way an artifact of the past, proof of what we have overcome.  It is as much a film for 2015 as it is for 1965.

Selma was criticized for its depiction of LBJ—I believe wrongfully.  Iit is odd that the same allegations have not been lobbed at questionable historical dramas such as American Sniper.  Not only is the president treated with compassion (though no one escapes the shades of gray that are also applied to MLK)— his arc mirrors that of the American people.  He begins believing that the Voting Rights Act has achieved enough for civil rights for the time being, but comes to recognize Dr. King’s position that more measures must be put in place.  It is sad that Tom Wilkinson’s performance will most likely be completely overlooked due to the controversy surrounding his role.

Selma is one of three films of the last five years that I believe deserves to be taught in high schools nationwide (along with Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave) as an example of American history at its ugliest.  However, one does not merely cringe because of the brutality that past generations incurred— they cringe because the images are so recognizable.  In the song that ends the film,  “Glory” by Common and John Legend, Common sings “Selma’s now for every man, woman and child.”  The message is clear—now just as it was in 1965, it is important to stand up against injustice.  It’s time to be brave once again.

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