Deep Focus: Selma
Selma begins with the camera squarely framing Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), as if for a formal portrait. The immediate effect is ironic. He’s rehearsing a solemn line for an award speech, and he’s unhappy about something, which turns out to be his tie—or, rather, his “ascot,” as his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), calls it. She adjusts the neckwear. King complains about feeling ill at ease in such a swanky getup. When he spins out his blue-sky ideal about taking a calm job as a minister in a college town, Coretta looks pleased and then wistful, as if her husband has pulled this nostalgic number on her once too often. The director, Ava DuVernay, cuts to the dais at a grand occasion, and King accepts the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace.
With this opening vignette, DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) and the credited screenwriter, Paul Webb, mean to signal audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look at the world-changing figure whose nonviolent campaigns against institutional racism propelled America’s boldest civil-rights advances of the 20th century. But even if you know nothing about King, both the cute business with the ascot and the dreamy escapism about a quieter life are too wispy to introduce this complex character. They’re like anecdotes about the human side of Great Men that educators employ to make biographies “relatable.” If you do know something about King, this Nobel Prize moment is inadequate.
At that time, the real King was depressed for many troubling reasons: rifts between King’s longtime partner in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), and other members of the SCLC; scandalous behavior among members of King’s entourage in Oslo; bogus FBI-spread rumors about his mismanagement of funds and links to Communism as well as the agency’s hyperbolic gossip about his extramarital affairs; frustration that 19 white Mississippians accused of murdering civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman had been released from prison (briefly, it turned out); and apprehension over the violence he rightly thought would erupt in Selma as soon as he started marching there for voting rights.
It’s understandable that DuVernay would make a priority of avoiding excessive detail. But too much of the movie is like that opening: deliberate, broad, uninspired. Selma is nothing if not ambitious. DuVernay aims to evoke the urgency behind King’s goal to enfranchise Southern blacks—that’s why she interrupts her chronology to depict the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls in 1963. (She envisions them chattering, pre-explosion, about Coretta Scott King’s hairstyle.) And she seeks to emphasize the grounded political wisdom behind the high-flying rhetoric of King’s nonviolent protest. When King arrives in Selma and confronts the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), his youthful competition, he states three principles of protest: “Negotiate, demonstrate, resist.” He explains that raising white America’s consciousness is as crucial as organizing black communities. King’s marches provoke racists to behave badly so national media will take notice. DuVernay lays that much out clearly. But when his legions proceed to the courthouse, the awful spectacle of Southern white lawmen brutalizing righteous citizens overpowers the film’s attempt to engage viewers more deeply. DuVernay’s scenes of street atrocities achieve a dogged power, but her rendering of King’s character fails to provide a counterweight to all the carnage. With police batons thudding against flesh and bone, and almost surreal images like a mounted posse-man in a cowboy hat lashing men and women of all ages, the movie captures horrific challenges to civil disobedience. But it doesn’t clarify King’s own complicated responses to events.
What is King thinking when he sees Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), outraged by the sheriff’s manhandling of an elderly gentleman, wallop him with her handbag, inciting a violent takedown? No matter how intensely Oyelowo grimaces, you can’t read what’s going on in King’s mind. While the moves and countermoves on the street spiral into a destructive dance, King strives to control his own political dance with grassroots political groups on his left (SNCC) and reactionary public figures on his right, like Sheriff Jim Clark (Tim Houston) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). How did King maintain his balance, ethically and tactically? (Even The New York Times once declared: “Non-violence that deliberately provokes violence is a logical contradiction.”) You can appreciate the sincerity of DuVernay’s work and still regret her lack of nimbleness and her psychological opacity. She awkwardly focuses on the same abused marchers in each busted-up demonstration. Watching this movie is like reading a large-type edition of a long and workmanlike biography.
The key politician in King’s sights is President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). One of the film’s major disappointments is its failure to imbue LBJ with a scale or fascination equal to his towering domestic accomplishments and imposing wheeler-dealer personality. The script depicts him simply as a beleaguered Chief Executive who stubbornly sticks to his own timetable. Having signed the milestone Civil Rights Act of 1964, the president tells King that his first priority is waging the War on Poverty to benefit impoverished blacks and whites alike, no matter what the facts are on the ground in Selma. He agrees that the federal government should guarantee the right of blacks and other minorities to vote, forcing the ban of prohibitive poll taxes and bogus literacy tests. But he thinks that pushing this issue soon after the civil rights bill would jeopardize his anti-poverty crusade. In the movie, he resents King so much for hectoring him that he gives his consent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s extortionist tactics, which include recording King’s infidelities and mailing a damning sex audiotape to his home. DuVernay’s clever use of printed legends from FBI logs help her set the time and place of crucial scenes and maintain a modicum of suspense. (Dylan Baker plays Hoover as an albino snake.) The film barely acknowledges the genuine anguish Johnson was suffering over U.S. policy in Southeast Asia—a serious omission, since the first U.S. combat division reached Vietnam on the very same day as the first aborted march from Selma-to-Montgomery. In this movie, the president finally gives King exactly what he wants because he doesn’t want to be seen as a small-minded cracker like Roth’s George Wallace. A more generous view of events would suggest that Johnson welcomed the pressure King put on him to do what he knew was right all along. Selma gives King and only King the moral high ground.
Often a first-class actor, Wilkinson fails to summon an iota of LBJ’s sloppy energy. Instead, he acts like a man in a perpetual snit, until the president gives his stirring plea to Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Even then, the way DuVernay sets up the action and the way Wilkinson plays it, when LBJ says “We shall overcome,” he sends a message of reconciliation specifically to King. It’s a reductive interpretation. Johnson was talking to King, but he was also, in a rare feat of eloquence, addressing the better angels of each American’s nature. He had used every hustle in his arsenal to advance a progressive domestic agenda. For Johnson and for the country, that occasion was cathartic.
In the greatest speech of a dreary public speaker, was Johnson trying to rise to the level of Martin Luther King Jr.? The civil rights leader, of course, was a magnificent orator. The film’s chief pleasure is hearing Oyelowo deliver roof-rattling variations on the preacher/activist’s call-and-response style. King had the podium artistry to inject adrenaline into gravitas. When seized by the moment, he entered a zone that was at once spiritual and sensual. Oyelowo emphasizes the visionary roll of King’s distinctive cadence, then adds his own startling staccato punctuation. His achievement is all the more impressive since the words he speaks are not King’s. DuVernay wrote the speeches herself, to bypass copyrighted material. Her pastiches lack the sinewy religious texture of King’s own writing, but their sleekness allows Oyelowo to connect with youthful, secular audiences who’ve never read the King James Bible. It’s when King descends from the lectern that Oyelowo gets into trouble. He’s praised his director for letting him take an extra second or two in playing out a scene, but his conversations often unfold in the same tempo as his sermons and stem-winders, especially when King is with Coretta. Did he actually speak this sagely and ceremoniously at home?
The script for Selma suffers from naming emotions rather than conjuring them and from invoking ideas rather than dramatizing them. In what should be the movie’s boldest domestic scene, Coretta and King listen to an audiotape that’s allegedly of him making love to another woman. But all Coretta wants to know is whether King honestly loves her—and whether he loves any of “the others.” Should these be the sole questions? Despite Oyelowo’s array of facial contortions and Ejogo’s haunting, tremulous elegance as Coretta, the movie leaves you with only the most general notion imaginable of King’s marital guilt. Selma acknowledges King’s infidelity without suggesting how it fit into his temperament or affected his marriage.
The movie is even more evasive about the most intriguing and under-chronicled episode in the Selma voting-rights campaign: King’s decision to curtail the second try at a march to Montgomery. He retreated from state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the town’s “Bloody Sunday” two days earlier, after lawmen broke up their battle line and cleared a way for the marchers. King kneels in prayer before turning back. Is he looking for direction from God? According to King biographer and civil rights historian Taylor Branch (in At Canaan’s Edge), King had been reluctant to flout a federal court order prohibiting a Selma to Montgomery march. Now “King stood stunned at the divide, with but an instant to decide whether this was a trap or a miraculous parting of the Red Sea. If he stepped ahead, the thrill of heroic redemption for Bloody Sunday could give way to any number of reversals—arrests, attacks, laughingstock exhaustion in hostile country—all with marchers compromised as flagrant transgressors of the federal order. If he stepped back, he could lose or divide the movement under a cloud of timidity. If he hesitated or failed, at least some of the marchers would surge through the corridor of blue uniforms toward their goal. ‘We will go back to the church now!’ shouted King, turning around.” Another biographer, David J. Garrow, says that King had cut a deal with one of LBJ’s emissaries to stop until the march was cleared in federal court. The movie, by contrast, shies away from practical explanations and leaves King’s oddest move in a haze. King turns around and walks slowly back, amid his puzzled, angry flock.
The supporting actors bring oomph to their small roles and are dead ringers for their historical counterparts. They include Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, Common as James Bevel, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Bayard Rustin, and Stephan James as young John Lewis. Along with Oyelowo, and Domingo as Abernathy, they imbue the whole ensemble with comradely warmth and solidity. It’s hard to resist this cast’s portrayal of idealism in action, or to feel any distance from the characters’ pain as truncheons scar their flesh. They act with the vitality of performers caught up in what Branch calls “Selma’s unique collaboration between a citizen’s movement and elected government.” This particular triumph was to win blacks their voting rights while setting an example of focused, disciplined protest. Its tragedy is that this inspiring episode can still be called “unique.”