While the real-world exigencies of Ava DuVernay’s Selma need no elaboration here, what will make the film essential for future generations isn’t mere flashpoint topicality, but the way it aligns an old struggle with a current one—and, remarkably, manages to do so without completely losing its sense of optimism. Shaking the dust off of a storied chapter in U.S. history, the film is as much about the “imperfect union” alleged by Barack Obama back in 2008 as it is about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march spearheaded by Martin Luther King, which precipitated the passage of the Voting Rights Act. (It should be noted, too, that said federal legislation was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, handing keys to voter discrimination back to the governments of 15 states—the majority of them in the South.) Selma isn’t just in theaters this Christmas because we’re long overdue for a King biopic, then, but also because a major Hollywood studio is willing to acknowledge how little things have really changed for black people in this country.
Credited to Paul Webb, but widely understood to have been ghost-rewritten by DuVernay, the screenplay leads off by juxtaposing two touchstones: the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama bombing that killed four young black girls, and King’s acceptance of the 1964 Nobel Peace prize. As embodied by David Oyelowo, this MLK can be both a purveyor of healing words and, when necessary, a sharp-elbowed political operator. His Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC) converges in Selma in January of 1965, drawing up a battle plan with the counsel of Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson); each hashed-out step toward announcing the march is tenuous at best, and these contentious strategy sessions allow DuVernay to avoid the foregone conclusion-ism that haunts nearly every other film of this type. The reformed, post-Nation of Islam Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) even makes a quick appearance, contextualizing the SCLC’s work within the broader black struggle and enriching DuVernay’s vision of the movement as all-too-human.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) summons King to the White House a handful of times, hoping that the civil rights leader will give his public blessing to the Great Society reforms. With Alabama’s voter suppression problem on his mind, King refuses—at which point LBJ, after browbeating him for missing the bigger picture, reluctantly seeks an assist from J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). King’s trajectory across the South is thus framed in F.B.I. surveillance dispatches typed out on screen; that the same government that would name a holiday after King once sent him letters recommending he kill himself is one of many necessary myth-correctives stuffed in this decidedly mainstream film’s text. After a tape with muffled sounds of King cavorting with another woman is mailed to his house, he denies to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), that it’s him—to which she responds with the film’s most loaded single piece of dialogue: “I know…I know what you sound like.” Shot with velvety stillness by cinematographer Bradford Young, their late-night confrontation may well be the film’s most nail-biting scene.
If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s because it is—not that Selma lacks for sequences of blistering, cringe-inducing power. After a rally, activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and his parents hide out in a diner; when a state trooper fires on the unarmed Jimmie at point-blank range, the young man’s eyes bulge and hollow as he slumps to the floor, dying in slow motion. DuVernay and Young are ever-scrupulous in calcifying the state’s violence without losing the thread, avoiding the droves of faceless victims so many prestige pics rely on as safe, distant fodder from which viewers are encouraged to wince. But strictly as a piece of filmmaking, Selma’s eyes are bigger than its stomach. During one late scene, Young indulges no less than five disparate camera angles on King as he speaks, and while they all look great, the abortiveness of the editing is distracting. Worse, the all-important final passage feels rushed, even a little perfunctory: Like sand in the hourglass, those details DuVernay clearly relished in the film’s early scenes slip away as King and his team start seeing an actual breakthrough. Before contracting, the narrative is only allowed to be so complicated.
On the day of the march, Young’s camera quietly snakes up the skeletal, rusted Edmund Pettus Bridge at dawn, a vista with the dreamlike serenity of a flashback and yet queasy foreboding to spare. Following a fruitless huddle with Alabama’s white-supremacist governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), LBJ has an epic about-face and initiates the Voting Rights Act before Congress; white and black protesters alike rush to Selma from across the country, and the march proceeds nonviolently. And this is where, after stockpiling so many sociopolitical complexities, Selma makes the worst of its (relatively minor) stumbles: Did this retelling—both epic and intimate, lush and brutal—really need to wrap itself up with a PBS-worthy montage? The film loops back around for a coda during King’s victorious Montgomery address, with supertitles detailing the destinies of its many characters; the roll call includes white activist Viola Liuzzo, who, the film notes was murdered by white supremacists mere hours after the speech depicted—a commendable note of discontent embedded within an otherwise triumphalist ending. DuVernay claims the version in theaters is her own cut, but the finale is so restrained that it’s jarring, rendering the actual march—which took four days—something of an afterthought. You’re left wondering what kind of Hollywood needs three consecutive three-hour Hobbit features, but can’t cough up another 30 minutes for Martin Luther King.