50 years ago, Dr Martin Luther King tackled “the American problem” head on. But the relevance of this film shows there’s still work to do.
There are immediate parallels between Selma, the story of Martin Luther King’s 1965 protest over voting rights, and Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s distillation of a great American icon through his battle for the 13th amendment.
Both show glimpses of the public persona – the oratory, the leadership, the charisma – but both choose to dwell on the domestic and political detail.
And so there are frustrations and riches aplenty in this handsome kaleidoscope of the Civil Rights Movement which is, above all else, an inspiring entreaty for the work to continue.
Dr King is frustrated by the lack of progress. He has the Nobel prize and Civil Rights Act has passed.
But on the ground, in places like Selma, Alabama, everyday discrimination is rife with citizens (like Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper) given ridiculous tests to prevent registration.
Scrappy President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) wants a softly-softly approach from King to help him cajole and nudge the country towards equality.
But Dr King’s methods – “Negotiate. Demonstrate. Resist” – demand drama, confrontation, the newspapers in the morning and the TV news in the evening.
He chooses to capitalise on Selma where the attempt by black people to register provides a single venue, a single issue and a single foe – bull-headed Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston).
This film is above all a masterclass in the messy mechanics of protest. Dr King, never more impactful than in the pulpit, knows the value of a good show. Those making slow, worthy efforts to “raise black consciousness” are swept aside in favour of grand gestures and broken bones.
The President, not unsympathetic but rattled, brings in J Edgar Hoover to launch black ops against the fragile King marriage. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is brittle and graceful as the doctor’s wronged wife who falls victim to the trickery.
When protesters attempt to march the 54 miles from Selma to state capital Montgomery they are met with such brutality on the Edmund Pettus bridge (and on national TV) that the tipping point is breached. Those, like pugnacious Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) are left behind while Johnson sees which way the wind is blowing.
Brit David Oyelowo deserves all the plaudits for his serene and charismatic portrayal of the great man, not only possessing his physicality but the memorable intonations of his voice. He sees the ineluctable tide of history, and though he craves a quiet life, he knows his destiny is inescapable.
Director Ava DuVernay eschews hagiography in favour of a mosaic. Each remarkable character is grounded in fact – supporters, protesters, ordinary citizens. Her ability to convey fear, courage and vulnerability in the same moment reveals the essence of the greater self. These are not saints, defying the billy clubs with holy grace, but flesh and blood folk felled, hurt and killed.
The story is history now, of course, and many of the characters have their stories that travel beyond 1968 when Dr King was murdered.
But story has sad resonances. US cops are still killing black citizens, Oyelowo’s exclusion from the Oscar list has raised eyebrows and the Voting Rights Act that is the subject of this film is still under attack in the courts (the latest in 2013).
And, as director DuVernay says: “I do find it surprising that, in the 50 years since Dr King’s death, there has never been a feature film focusing on him as the protagonists. That’s a jaw-dropper.”
This year, she has memorably addressed that shortcoming with a jaw-dropper of her own.
Selma | (12A) 128mins | ★★★★✩