After decades of seeming neglect, African American history stories have suddenly become very popular in Hollywood. In just the last three years we’ve seen movies about the struggle for civil rights as varied as Red Tails, 42, The Help, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Get on Up. There are probably a number of rather cynical explanations for this. Biopics in general tend to get made because they have the same name brand recognition advantage of a sequel or a comic book adaptation while appealing to a different and arguably underserved audience and biopics of famous African Americans serve as a means for studios to bow to pressures for more diversity while still keeping racial issues “safely in the past.” Still, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. These stories are important and it’s about time that Hollywood at least attempted to tell them. Of course for all the Civil Rights heroes that have had movies made about them, one has remained elusive: Marin Luther King himself. King is basically considered a saint among American historical figures and as such he’s kind of a hard figure to really tackle, but someone has finally tried to do it and the resulting film is called Selma.
Selma extensively features Martin Luther King, but it isn’t exactly a biopic. Rather it’s about the various struggles leading up to the 1964 Selma to Montgomery March and a number of the people involved in that episode. The film sets the situation with a conversation in the Oval office between King (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) with King pushing for the 1964 Voting Rights Act and Johnson asking King to lean hold off on any further action so that Johnson can save his political clout for the passage of his Great Society programs. King does not accept this proposal and instead decides to begin a series of protests in Alabama with the openly hostile town of Selma as his staging ground. There he collaborates with other civil rights leaders like James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) to plan a march to Montgomery that will be harshly opposed by the locals, including Alabama’s infamous governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).
Selma will likely draw comparisons to some of the other recent Black History biopics, but in many ways it actually reminded me a lot more of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. I always thought that movie would have been better served if it had been called “The Amendment” or something, because it wasn’t really a biopic so much as a dramatization of one of Lincolns finer accomplishments, the passing of the 13th amendment. Similarly, Selma is less of a biopic than a sort of procedural about how Martin Luther King was able to organize this one demonstration. Also, like Lincoln, it isn’t too afraid to dig into some of the less glamorous politics that its subject needed to get involved in even while staying overwhelmingly positive in its ultimate assessment. The film hovers around, but doesn’t necessarily dwell on, the somewhat questionable practice of putting activists in danger in order to draw national attention to his protests. The film also doesn’t shy away from discussing King’s infidelity and the way it was used by the FBI to blackmail him.
King is played here by David Oyelowo, who does a very good job of replicating the famous civil rights leader’s speaking style and mannerisms. However, I feel like I’ve seen so many actors effectively imitate historical figures at this point that a performance really need to do more than that to really impress me at this point and that’s why I consider Oyelowo’s work here to merely be “very good” rather than “masterful.” When Oyelowo’s King is giving rousing speeches in front of crowds it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment and be very impressed, but I’m not sure that Oyelowo was quite as able to humanize the character in some of the quieter moments. I don’t know that I could really picture this version of King telling a joke or engaging in a little small talk and even when he’s getting into some rather unpleasant arguments with his wife he never seems like anything less than a living saint and icon.
Oyelowo is surrounded by an very large and very impressive supporting cast of actors who each do a great job in their own right of portraying the various historical figures involved. Tom Wilkinson does a pretty good Lyndon Johnson, certainly better than the one Liev Schreiber did in last year’s The Butler. Tim Roth also has a wonderfully shit-eating turn as George Wallace, which is one of the best roles he’s been given in years. Below the lines there are just a ton of notable actors like Cuba Gooding, Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Dylan Baker who do a great job of playing small roles without having them feel like stunt cameos. The only actor who really stands out as a somewhat distracting presence is probably Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson, who needs to maybe lay off playing inspirational leaders going forward. Beyond that there are a ton of less famous actors like Wendell Pierce, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lorraine Toussaint, and Colman Domingo who bring a lot of the inter-movement discussions alive without being weighed down by all the baggage that Oyelowo had to deal with.
Martin Luther King is different than most American heroes because he wasn’t an elected official, a general, or a frontiersman. Rather, he’s an activist, and Selma is largely a film about the nature of protest and activism. King says early on that his ultimate goal is to influence the hearts and minds of white America and specifically the heart and mind of the white man who happens to be sitting in the oval office. The film pains Lyndon Johnson as someone who sees the passage of civil rights as inevitable but also someone who’s more than willing to slow the process down in order to focus on other priorities and progress in the film is gauged by how far away Johnson is to changing his mind and focusing in on the Voting Rights Act. This has not gone over too well with certain historians who view Johnson more as a sort of collaborator who intended to pass the Voting Rights Act from the beginning. That this has become such a matter of controversy is perhaps a bit curious because aside from one rather questionable moment where Johnson all but orders J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous “suicide letter” to King, Johnson is depicted as a mostly well intentioned leader who comes through in the end.
When I first finished watching Selma I was pretty damn impressed, but I’ve maybe cooled on it a little in the couple days since I watched it. The film was directed by Ava DuVernay, who had up to this point only made tiny self-distributed films like I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. She does a very proffetional job of mounting and pacing Selma but I also kind of got the impression that DuVernay could have maybe benefited from a little more time in the minors before trying to mount an epic like this. I was particularly bothered by a choice that she and cinematographer Bradford Young made to soften a lot of the black levels in the film and sort of wash out the whole image. At times it looked like I was watching an otherwise well shot film on a television that had had the brightness setting turned all the way up. That probably sounds like a minuscule thing to be bothered by but it is omnipresent and was a pretty big distraction for me during the whole film. Ultimately I don’t think this is on the same level as something like 12 Years a Slave and I also don’t think it’s quite as strong as Lincoln was, but it is significantly better than something like 42 or Red Tails. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, activism, or American history in general. Would I recommend it to someone simply looking for great cinema… not necessarily. Still, the movie does too much right to be ignored and is Hollywood biopic filmmaking at its finest.
***1/2 out of Four