I went into Selma with a bit of biopic fatigue. I thought I knew the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to get the Voting Rights Act passed. What I didn’t account for was the power of Ava DuVernay’s direction. She made the only biopic this year that transcended the film designation and instead told a truly engaging and powerful story.
The most important distinction is that Selma is not a biographical story of Martin Luther King Jr. It is the story of a movement and a march. While King is the face of the film as he is the face of the Civil Rights Movement, he didn’t do it alone and DuVernay goes out of her way to show the internal struggles and conflicts within the movement.
David Oyelowo portrayal of King is a welcome natural performance. This is the King, not of statues and holidays, but the real man with his doubts and flaws and most importantly his tired eyes. He allows King to be powerful without grandstanding. He listens to his counterparts in the movements but ultimately realizes it is his decisions that will be watched and ridiculed. The scene where King shows up for the third march to Montgomery in a t-shirt and slacks in a symbol of the entire movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a picture of King not in a suit. In this moment his is just a man marching for freedom and it is a lovely moment to behold.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is the other amazing performance that somehow missed the Oscar ballot. From the scene where the little girls of the 16th Street Baptist Church are discussing how Coretta wears her hair to her meeting with Malcolm X, the film shows the power and importance of Scott King whether she fully wanted it or not. She questions her place in the movement and in King’s heart with a sense of both longing to be more involved and not wanting the life of pain and suffering they have to endure.
Unfortunately, the performances of Ejogo and Oyelowo have been overshadowed by the controversy over the portrayal of President Johnson. The critics of the film claim that it portrays LBJ as being against the Voting Rights Act and in direct opposition to King. I’m not sure what film they were watching but he seemed nothing if not presidential to me. He explains to King that while this is King’s sole fight right now he is the president and has hundreds of decisions to make and this can’t be his top priority. It might seem like a brush off but it also seems like reality. He took meetings with King and but in the end the public outrage is what pushed him to make voting rights a priority. This should not be viewed as a negative. It is a fair portrait of a president during turbulent times.
This film really only belongs to one person, the director. DuVernay manages to take so many moving parts and weave them seamlessly together. She takes a subject matter people feel they’ve heard 100 times and makes it meaningful in a new way. The scene of the little girls in the 16th street baptist church is one of the most horrifically beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. I knew what was coming and it still took my breath away and shook me to my core. Praise should also be heaped on the writer, Paul Webb, for making King sound like King without using any of his actual speeches. Selma set the bar for how a biopic should be executed and DuVernay won’t be getting a much deserved Oscar but she definitely won in my mind and the minds of everyone who saw this astonishing film.