Some movies are magic. I don’t mean in the technical sense. Technically, all movies are just a complicated magic trick; an illusion. The projector is fooling your brain into thinking still shots shown at 24 frames per second are one continuous moving image. No, some movie magic goes beyond that. Some movies are powerful enough that they work for you on every level. You’re so connected to the story and invested in the characters that for a brief moment you forget that you’re in a theater watching an image on a screen. You forget that you know how all this stuff is going to end. You’re just in it.
This experience is harder and harder to come by the more I watch and study film. It’s hard to forget you’re watching a movie when you’re trying to pay attention to how the director chose to frame a shot, to why the editor chose to cut here and how that helps or hurts the pacing of the film, to how music was chosen, and sound was edited. It’s fine, I really enjoy this side of film too, but it’s rare that I’m able to completely lose myself in a movie.
I lost myself in Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, and I loved every second of it.
Selma tells the true story of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 to peacefully protest and demonstrate against the southern laws unfairly levied against African-Americans. While voting was a constitutionally protected act since the 15th amendment was ratified in 1870, high poll taxes and ridiculous requirements were used to prevent the black community from voting. In Selma, Oprah Winfrey’s character Annie Lee Cooper is required to recite the preamble of the US Constitution and the number of court judges in her district. When she correctly answers (62), she’s asked to name them all, a feat that I don’t think any registered voter at the time let alone today, could actually do. This is a small taste of what faced the black voters of Alabama and many other places around the country.
David Oyelowo as Dr. King is magnificent. When he is on stage speaking to a crowd, Oyelowo isn’t just acting, he transforms into Martin Luther King. He’s passionate, energetic, and inspiring. He works the crowd and feeds off their energy, offering up his unflinching idealism in the face of so much hatred. The most amazing thing about these speeches is that they’re not actually Dr. King’s. The estate of MLK had sold the rights to Dreamworks for a project by Steven Spielberg. The speeches we hear in this film were written for this movie (which is why I can’t believe this movie didn’t get an Oscar nod for original screenplay. Bleh…Oscars). And yet the performance by Oyelowo captures the essence of King’s public speaking.
But there is more to Martin Luther King than the public speaker. The movie reveals King the man, who was surrounded by brilliant, headstrong people that he relied on. King the man, much more timid and reserved, who doubts himself and his movement as people suffer and die to stand with him. This is a movie that wants you to know the truth behind the legend and Oyelowo’s simultaneously subtle and bold performances allow you to believe both versions of the man.
Ava DuVurney’s direction is remarkable. This is a movie that doesn’t hold its punches. It makes you feel every moment, the terrible and the triumphant, as if you were there. This is especially true with the pivotal Bloody Sunday scene. The importance of Bloody Sunday in the history of the civil rights movement cannot be understated. It was one of the first instances of brutality against peaceful demonstrators being caught on tape and broadcast to millions of Americans. The event horrified the general public and galvanized the nation into throwing their support into the civil rights movement like never before.
DuVurney’s direction in this scene captures the horror of this moment in history. As marchers slowly file out of Selma and across the bridge into the armed police waiting for them on the other side, tension is gradually built up. Suddenly, as the violence erupts, the frame is clouded by white tear gas. The camera flies through the carnage as terrified people sprint past it, away from the charging police. We stop randomly, hovering on random brutal acts of violence long enough for you to feel the full impact before moving on to the next. As I watched I was awestruck at how similar it looked to the violence against the protesters in Ferguson, which made the scene all the more effective. This was not just something that America dealt with a long time ago. It’s very much something we’re still dealing with today. Selma makes you feel that.
There has been a lot of talk and controversy over the portrayal of LBJ in this movie. Tom Wilkinson plays LBJ with passion and conviction, but it’s true that the LBJ shown here is not quite historically accurate. The film makes him seem much more resistant to assisting in the civil rights struggle than was actually true. But I think the complaints have been overblown. He’s not set up to be the antagonist of the film. LBJ in Selma is merely a politician that has to abide by the rules of politics; a restriction that Martin Luther King does not have time for. The controversy does, at the very least bring up an interesting discussion point: in a biopic, what duty does the film have to staying true to the actual events? I would argue not very. When constructing a story, even a story from actual events, it is sometimes necessary to make changes if they better serve the story you’re trying to create. As I see it, the important thing is that you remain true to the heart and soul of the actual events, which I believe Selma does.
Writing this review was really difficult. Half the time I sat at an empty page trying to put into words how incredible and important this movie is. I still don’t think I’ve quite pulled it off, but let me at least leave you with the words I wrote as I walked out of the theater still reeling from the emotional ass kicking I had received:
Selma is brilliant, haunting, powerful and inspiring. Selma is why we have movies and why I love them. Do yourself a favor and see it.