There are exciting films, entertaining films and moving films, films of beauty and films of ugliness. Some films provide fascinating historical commentary, others tell deeply personal stories. Selma is none of these, yet all of these. At its heart, Selma is a film of morality, a moving account of a dark chapter of American history, a chapter still felt rippling today. Selma paints a powerful portrait of the events of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march organized by Martin Luther King Jr., bringing attention to the political subtexts, moral issues and personal narratives that surrounded these pivotal events in American history, and because of how masterfully these threads are woven together, director Ava DuVernay succeeds at providing a story of remarkable depth and poignancy.
Selma triumphs for a number of reasons intertwined in such a way that it proves difficult to separate them in order to analyze. DuVernay is to be commended for this intricacy of construction: remove one element, and the entire picture is lessened. To be admired first and foremost is the screenplay by Paul Webb, which takes the factually based story of the Civil Rights movement and the Selma-Montgomery march and tackles it from multiple levels. We get glimpses of the context surrounding the march, the injustice predicated towards African-Americans by systemic and societal prejudice in the South, as well as King’s (David Oyelowo) singular importance for the Civil Rights movement. Immediately, the audience is forced to reckon with the necessity of this march and given the sense that the events of the story to come are an inevitable and urgent undertaking.
Webb gives insight into the greater political machinations behind the scenes, shedding light on the occasional clashes between President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) agenda and King’s activism. Light is also shed on dissent within King’s movement regarding his highly organized methods of non-violence (a theme that is brought out to stunning clarity throughout the film), which heightens our appreciation of the complexity and weight of the strategies King opts to pursue. The film’s depiction of the brutal “Bloody Sunday” incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is unsettling, portrayed in all its unnatural and immoral terror by the camerawork of Bradford Young, whose cinematography is full of even and steady motion, sweeping the audience away in the action while still permitting us to intellectually process it.
DuVernay and Webb balance these broader stroke depictions of the injustice committed towards African-Americans with intimate and deeply moving portraits of the individual players. David Oyelowo stands out with his incredible depiction of King, (his lack of an Oscar nomination a terrible disappointment) capturing the inspiring power and charisma of King as a leader, while also revealing his very human weaknesses. Carmen Ejogo is a highlight as Coretta Scott King, emphasizing both the dignities and struggles that her and her family embodied and endured during their great struggle. Other performances, ranging from notable to exceptional, abound throughout.
This personal focus elevates Selma beyond a competent history lesson, transforming it into a powerful and convicting picture whose images and emotions linger long after leaving the theater. Scattered throughout the film are small, powerful portraits of individuals caught up in the turmoil, from the heartbreaking death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), a demonstrator shot by an Alabama state trooper while trying to protect his mother, to the killing of Reverend James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), a white minister beaten to death by KKK men for daring to participate in the marches for justice. These individual, moving vignettes, coupled with the remarkably human portrayals of the major players, are what make Selma a powerful and compelling picture.
Because of its combination of history, artistry and narrative power, Selma succeeds at doing what Unbroken failed to accomplish only a few weeks earlier: provide a depiction of human suffering and sacrifice that does not numb, but moves. DuVernay finds the beauty within the darkness. Powerful images of broken and flawed people standing up and saying that enough is enough, that there is a better moral way by which we can live our lives, abound in Selma, and the film calls for its audience not only to watch, but to participate. This way has a cost, but it is a cost well worth paying. Selma is not a perfect film, but it is a deeply moral film, and for that reason a must-see.