Finally, as far as this year’s Best Picture nominees are concerned, the film about a cause that became a cause. That Selma failed to stir the massed Caucasian ranks of the Academy and BAFTA in the way Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave did last year may be down to its sober treatment of the genesis of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; it is, nevertheless, a stinging irony that a film about institutionalised racism should have met with some indifference from the highest ranks of movie society, and had to prompt renewed calls for voter reform.
If you wanted to dress up Ava DuVernay’s film as sexier than it is, you could pitch it as a man-on-a-mission movie. We’re watching Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) leading his followers into the heart of segregationist America – the Alabaman backwater of the title, where the shops proudly bore “Serving Whites Only” signs – to stage the march that would eventually give a public face to those persons of colour who were being denied any such representation at the ballot box.
Not everything is black and white, however. Paul Webb’s filigreed script adopts a multi-strand format in order to outline the divisions that existed within even King’s own ranks. Scenes are given over to King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who stalks off to meet with Malcolm X, and confronts her man with accusations of philandering; to those activists nudging King towards more and less extreme positions; and to those volunteers who put their bodies on the frontline, and suffered the chokeholds and baton charges.
DuVernay shares her subject’s concern with crowd control: she gathers up all this grassroots activity, and allows the film to assume its own gravity. Given that key episodes here take place in the backrooms of power, the legitimate comparison point wouldn’t be McQueen’s blood-and-thunder tableau, but Spielberg’s Lincoln, a paleface retelling of a no less crucial part of the black experience that expressed a similar hushed fascination with tactics, rhetoric and realpolitik.
Like Spielberg, DuVernay and Webb are as interested in the detail as the grand historical gesture. Their film opens backstage at the 1964 Nobel Prize ceremony, with a conversation about a tie that goes to King’s concerns that he might have become untethered from street-level realities, then cuts back a year to find a stark illustration of those realities: the 1963 firebombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama that claimed the lives of four young churchgoers.
Generally, Selma is far less confrontational than the McQueen film in the struggles it depicts; indeed, Bradford Young’s handsome, burnished period images are exactly those the Academy typically laps up. DuVernay is, however, very shrewd in her shot selection: she knows there’s a particular charge in seeing Oprah Winfrey – arguably the most powerful black woman in America, cast here as campaigner Annie Lee Cooper – knocked to the ground by racist police.
She’s less assured whenever Webb attempts to give voice to those on the other side of this divide. Both Tom Wilkinson, stuffed into crummy tailoring as LBJ, and Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, struggle with the tricky task of having to return to credible life some cartoonishly antiquated attitudes; FBI surveillance reports on King, tapped up on screen at regular intervals, outline the establishment’s chilly, paranoid outlook with far less blustery fuss.
Some viewers expressed a resistance to the way Lincoln clogged up with voices, speeches and noble intentions; it wouldn’t surprise me if history repeated itself again here. The considered politicking gives Selma rare integrity, but at the expense of some dynamism: King, with a decade’s activism under his belt at this point, proves rather better at nudging everyone forward than DuVernay does in only her third full-length feature.
Still, you can’t help but be struck by the ambition, intelligence and seriousness of the latter’s project, and in those sequences that foreground Oyelowo’s formidable oratorical skills, you really can feel the film, and the movement it depicts, snapping into the sharpest of focuses: suddenly the whole world seems to be hanging on one man’s words. It’d be a fool who turned a deaf ear to a film with this much to say about America then, and America now.
(MovieMail, February 2015)
Selma screens on BBC2 tonight at 11pm.