As for the sixth American Saint? Elvis Presley. But he's not in this movie.
One cannot envy the task that "Selma" has given itself: to make a human portrait of Martin Luther King. Biopics are typically beloved fair of Oscarbait, but they are always tricky movies to make. Few lives add up in total to a single dramatic formula that fits a two hour movie. The worst-structured biopics end up meandering and often boring. For example: the otherwise brilliant "Mr. Turner". These problems are multiplied infinitely when your figure is an irreproachable member of the modern Pantheon, more sacred than most actual divinities in this country*. "Selma"'s solution is as brilliant as it is simple: do not be a biopic. Focus on a single moment in time and make your figures merely actors in a grand historic play.
"Selma" borrows much of it's structure from "Lincoln" - be a drama about a single battle in your hero's life, not a drama about his entire life. This film is only about the 1964 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. King orchestrated protestors to strike at the very bastion of White supremacy, forcing the US government to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "Selma" goes somewhat further than "Lincoln". It is not a story about one civil rights leader, but a tale about the entire movement, with MLK merely being the appointed star. King (David Oyelowo), fresh with a Noble Peace Prize, uses the Selma march to convince a relunctant President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to side with him against Southern tyranny. "Selma" manages to juggle reverence with drama, building a tight, intense, and emotional movie giving a clear, modern picture into one of the most difficult chapters of American history.
One challenge that any history piece must confront, be it a book or a film, is to capture any moment in time in a way that is appreciable to a modern audience. "Selma" correctly judges that it will be impossible for any audience to be sympathetic towards the Whites in power. They are cast as simple creatures of hate. Though there is not a single Klan member in "Selma", it's state troopers are just as monstrous, with no redeeming factors of any kind. Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is a pure villain, one who truly wishes to see Black people defeated in his state**. The tensions of a repressed minority attempting to overcome a viscous caste system is universal, an easily sympathetic tale. Still, with the weight of history on your side, it is difficult to resist temptations to not become too preachy. This must remain a human story with characters confronting real dramatic tests, not preaching lessons.
|The Lords of Selma.|
It is hard to tell after "Selma"'s first whether events are still being managed by the Civil Rights Leaders or if they have begun to grow an energy all their own. As young protesters are shot in cafes attempting to escape Alabama state troopers and White pastors supporting the movement are beaten to death in the street, the Selma March becomes an organism with it's own will and own tempo. Martin Luther King leads forward on a roaring historical tide, much as the film is pushed along by fantastic editing and stirring pacing. Director Ava DuVernay manages to create a feeling in her audience of being a part of that very historic tide. You can feel the energy as the world changes, and are swept away by it.
King himself is still the primary character, though he does not need to be in every scene or make every key decision. He is the rallying figure for many disparate characters, and he is the emotional core of the movie. There are moments though where his faith and personality feel almost trampled by the crest of the movement he is leading - and being led by. King's wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) is a quiet long-suffering woman, having her family essentially torn apart by her husband's mission. Martin himself is tired, worn, and aching to just go home. The man finds he must again fight more battles, realizing on some level that his life will eventually be lost by this quest. Oyelowo's voice trembles as he tries his best to hold together a failing marriage nearly torn about by his own (graciously unseen) philandering.
|Hard to know if they are staying together out of love, or the expectations of the movement.|
There has been a great deal of controversy around "Selma", as one would inevitably expect. Dramatic convenience simplifies a great deal of the timeline. Certain characters and elements are ignored or diluted. But there is one issue that seems to have rallied opponents to this film: LBJ. Lyndon Johnson is hardly a villain on the same scale as George Wallace. His place in the story is more of an obstructionist, with his opinion being that voting reform should wait while he focuses on a grand War on Poverty. King and his supporters, for a litany of reasons, will not wait.
Some have called LBJ's presence in this movie an insult to the most Civil Rights-minded president of all time (which Johnson undeniably was). I would say this is a misinterpretation of the goals of the film. Johnson in this film is clearly on the Civil Rights side, though Tom Wilkinson's performance makes the character seem stubborn and offended by a question to his power. This Johnson is not really the LBJ of our reality, whose motives during the Selma March can be debated by historians forever like everything in history, but rather an incarnation of Moderate Whites during this period. He is slow to realize the depth of the problem in the South, but once he is finally moving with the tide of Civil Rights, he as great of a supporter as any other figure. It was a necessary component to the structure of this story, not a slander of a President.
|He has a Dream.|
"Selma" probably should not be a film that is too relevant. I would prefer for it to be as dusty and separate from our modern understanding as "Mr. Turner". However, it is still a powerful film - about the past, but speaking to today.
* Sorry, Ganesh.
** The real Wallace was more complicated. He was more of a populist than a true racist, whose ultimate goals were attacking the wealthy, not Black people. Most of Wallace's hideous speeches were influenced by his Ku Klux Klan leader speechwriter, Asa Earl Carter. There was a huge angry voting block heatedly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement, and George Wallace was more too willing to use it to win votes. Though he became the defining arch-segregationist, Wallace renounced all of it by the 1970s. However, the man who once said "segregation now, segregation forever" cannot really complain if future generations decide he is a complete monster. He would not be the last politician to pander to the worst elements of the human animal to vote office.
PS: Damn, just missed MLK Day with this review. Oh well. It's not like Martin Luther King ceases to matter on January 20th.