Selma paradoxically presents nonviolent civil rights protest as something akin to a military campaign. Marchers assemble and disrupt, filling streets or sitting in whites-only establishments, and a battle ensues in which local authorities attempt to beat and kill as many protesters as possible before media coverage makes their brutality untenable. It’s a moral siege, one that leverages the certainty of retaliation against the belief, or at least the hope, that eventually the establishment will grow too disgusted with itself to continue.
The de facto head of this strategy is Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), whose leadership is presented not as the inevitable outcome of sheer righteousness, but the result of extensive outreach and a preternatural understanding of new, visual-based forms of news consumption. Upon arrival in Selma to lead a march for voting rights, King is promptly punched in the face by a white local, to which the reverend can only respond by whispering to his comrades, “This place is perfect,” already aware that the hostility of the white townspeople will ensure scores of reporters and cameramen flocking to the city. The film shows resistance to King’s plan among activists who find it weak and unnecessarily ingratiating, but Oyelowo highlights the shrewdness in the leader’s approach. A sanitized version of MLK is regularly taught to children as instruction for non-disruptive dissent, as much to ensure “cooperative” protest in future generations as much as to laud the success of the man’s work. The film, however, suggests that if King succeeded where more militant activists failed, his manipulation of the media to expose a system whites took for granted is what truly made a difference.
Largely adhering to biopic convention, director Ava DuVernay nonetheless foregrounds the linearity of the script in such a way that King himself becomes less important than the methodical nature of his protest. Low-angle shots of King’s speeches emphasize the unifying power of his sonorous voice and impassioned rhetoric, but he would not have a crowd to preach to without the far more banal, testy debates that play out behind closed doors. He regularly exchanges blows with Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who uses his irascibility as a mask for his deep anxiety over having to face such issues in an election cycle, but he must also win over younger activists who view marches as empty showboating, and King himself as an aloof celebrity boosting his own image before the actual stability and progress of African-Americans. Even the white establishment must argue with itself, with Johnson struggling to mollify Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), who in turn tries to keep bullish Selma sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) from killing anyone and forcing the president to send in the National Guard. Selma may be the latest staging area in King’s campaign, but the true battleground is television, where any aggression on behalf of the white powers can only bring more people to the civil rights cause.
Though Selma languished in development hell for years, it’s nearly impossible to watch it now outside the context of current events. Sequences of police meeting fiery but controlled gatherings with tear gas and beatings called to mind Ferguson upon the film’s theatrical release, and Selma reaches Blu-ray in time for them to conjure Baltimore. Nonetheless, the film’s relevance owes more to the enduring lessons it offers about organizing social protest in the modern era than it does to any specific manifestation of that struggle. The film has much in common with Lincoln, teasing out an image of its central figure through a minute focus on the intricacies and strategies of his politicking. Often, the portrait isn’t flattering; like any commanding officer, King has to make peace with the idea of casualties in pursuit of victory, but in a scene where he must face the tired but still hopeful grandfather of a murdered young protester, King grieves even as he plans to use the boy as the cornerstone of his next address. In such times, the film’s greatest tension arises not from billyclub-swinging cops, but King’s attempt to square his cynical pragmatism with the humanism it serves.
Bradford Young’s cinematography looks garish at first blush, all hazy, murky interiors and harsh, gray exteriors, but the look of the film accurately captures areas of urban poverty and the way that even the sun doesn’t seem to shine as brightly on areas that never climb out of recession, as if streets themselves could be malnourished. Paramount’s Blu-ray ably replicates this look with no discernible artifacts, and textures generally pop well from the otherwise flattened image. The soundtrack is mainly devoted to dialogue, but it roars into chaos whenever police converge on protests, and the track handles the maelstrom with clarity and precision.
Ava DuVernay hosts two commentaries, one with David Ayewolo and one with Young and editor Spencer Averick. Naturally, the first more directly tackles the film’s themes and production stories, while the latter digs into the technical side, and the general lack of overlap between the tracks makes both worthwhile listens. "The Road to Selma" offers a brief look at the background of both the historical event and the film’s long gestation period, while "Recreating Selma" looks at the actual production. There are also a clutch of deleted scenes, a music video for the Oscar-winning song "Glory," as well as old newsreels and more information about Selma’s museums and institutes.
Selma may have come out during a renewed period of racial tension, but its lasting relevance lies in its clear-headed depiction of the constant negotiation between inflamed passions and cold-blooded politicking that progresses any kind of social struggle.