Movies have become very good at assembling armies. Good software and skilled technicians are often all you need. The ensuing chaos of battle tends to resemble a cartoon of war. What’s human grows indistinguishable from what’s not, and making a distinction between the two sides seems beside the point. Whether the battle is any fun becomes a more pressing concern than its outcome.
In Selma, you see the bodies assembled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and notice that this army is different. You notice hats, glasses, the fabric of coats, faces — mostly brown, many handsome. You notice the strength in their expressions, certainly, but also the fear — just on the other side awaits the local law enforcement, and you notice that you’re noticing its assembly, too: 60 or so strapping, white, uniformed men. Some of them are on horseback, giving them the grim, disproportionate grandeur of cavalry. Their strength differs from that of the people on the bridge. The gas masks they’ve just slipped on disguise any fear.
The reason you notice these accumulated details is that Ava DuVernay, the director of this tense showdown, has orchestrated it with the meticulousness Wes Anderson applies to his storybook dioramas and Paul Greengrass does to international frenzy. Her touch feels personal, not so much because DuVernay is a black American woman making what is already the most widely seen, intensely discussed of her three films, but because she has an artistic stake in the clarity of the conflict. DuVernay devotes a good number of shots to the serene arrival of these 525 or so people on that bridge, because she intends to shatter the serenity and wants you to be shattered, too. The black bodies march, silently, in an orderly line through town, across the street and onto the bridge, blood flowing through a moral artery to some heart of justice.
On the bridge, there are pleas to talk, one from John Lewis (Stephan James) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There’s no acknowledgment from the other side, just an order for the officers to head toward the crowd, well before the two minutes the protesters have been given to turn back are up. The police swing their barbed-wire bats and lash their bullwhips. For one longish sequence, you see the weapons flashing through the fog of tear gas, while the scene is narrated by a New York Times reporter into a phone booth telephone. Over his report, you hear the up-tempo wail of gospel music beseeching the Lord to come on and walk with me. The siege is a re-creation of a notorious riot from March of 1965: Bloody Sunday. DuVernay gives it a kind of savage beauty. A cop, for instance, runs downs a young woman the way a cheetah stalks a gazelle. The film DuVernay has made is full of that kind of touch.
One of DuVernay’s creative challenges is in presenting the assault against nonviolent demonstrators in a way that’s appalling but doesn’t leave the victims of the assault seeming passive. She’s focused on the decisive stretch of months during the civil rights era that culminated in President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement of legislation that would lead to the Voting Rights Act. The business on the bridge erupts out of a planned peaceful march from Selma to the Alabama capital in Montgomery — cities in a state where, for black Americans, the picayune voter-registration barriers were impenetrable. The 15th Amendment granted blacks the constitutional right to vote,1 but some Southern states used discriminatory practices ($2 poll taxes, literacy tests) that mocked legality.
Black men, that is. The 19th Amendment, which prohibited the denial of voting rights based on sex, wouldn’t come for another 50 years after the 15th.
Ostensibly, Selma is a film about the leader of the movement, Martin Luther King Jr., whom David Oyelowo plays with blazing rectitude. But that sequence on the Pettus Bridge takes place without King, who stays behind in Atlanta that day. The rear of King’s perfectly round head and broad shoulders and back dominate the posters. The physical essence of King dominates the film, too: It’s load-bearing. But really, the movie is not a story about Martin Luther King, per se; it’s a movie about strategic thinking that features Martin Luther King. I imagine one reason the movies have been unsuccessful in giving him the full biopic treatment has to do with it being impossible. Selma’s approach is shrewd. King is a leader — just not the only one. It’s he who’s gnawing at Johnson’s pant leg to get voting legislation passed, and he who prevails upon Lewis and James Forman (Trai Byers) at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to accept the presence in Selma of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the movie is vividly stocked with some of the movement’s other star tacticians: Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (André Holland), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey), and Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson).
When these men show up at the home of Richie Jean Jackson (Niecy Nash) and flirtatiously introduce themselves, the swoon for anyone steeped in their accomplishments is like the one comic-book nuts feel seeing Chris Evans play Captain America. These men are captains, too. The women who lead have less to do, but their presence is striking nonetheless. Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), who’s central to the Selma march and badly bruised on that bridge, are on the front lines of the marches and present for most of the strategizing. DuVernay seems to understand that simply putting Toussaint in a chair or at the edge of a pew can bestow rational ballast to a roomful of bickering men. There is the mark of leadership in her handsomeness. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King as a woman of gentle fortitude. One minute she’s folding shirts, the next she’s daring to tell Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) to take his black militancy out of Selma.
Yes, this is a movie so vast yet so thematically prioritized that Malcolm X has a walk-on, in which he promises Coretta to perform the role of the diverting threat, so that President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) understand how much worse they could have it. The movie is so big that when King needs his own uplift, he phones Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), rousing her from sleep, and tells her, “I need to hear God’s voice,” which prompts her to sing while her husband continues to sleep behind her. Selma is stuffed with icons who have had or deserve to have movies of their own, if you go in for that sort of filmed biography. I tend not to. The facts get thorny. The engineered uplift insults. The notes become predictable. It’s some actor’s Role of a Lifetime. Selma is part of a wave of movies committed to a moment in history, like Lincoln. But it’s more powerfully committed to a climate around a moment.
For DuVernay, working with a script credited to Paul Webb, the establishment of that climate requires the collapse of a timeline and the conflation of events, sometimes to imply causality, and at other times to give the film a historical dreaminess. Selma opens with Martin and Coretta alone together in Oslo as he readies himself to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. “It’s not right,” he keeps saying, and you don’t know whether he means the prize or his tie. Two scenes later, four finely dressed girls are descending the staircase of a church discussing the press of Coretta’s hair the way you might talk today about the realness of Beyoncé’s. Then the walls explode, sending fabric and shoes and rubble and glass sailing across the screen.
The bombing of that church occurred the year before, in Birmingham. And I’m not sure this movie needs it. But it’s a shocking example of the racist weather in Wallace’s Alabama. In the next scene, a woman named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) fills out a voter registration card and is called over to a window at the Selma registrar’s office. She tells the gentleman she’d like to register to vote. He proceeds to ask her to recite the preamble of the United States Constitution (she does) and tell him the number of the state’s county judges (she does). Name them, he says, his voiced tinged with evil self-satisfaction, because of course she can’t. Down crashes his stamp: denied.
These first three sequences build on one another to establish the urgency to eliminate those arbitrary and other more costly impediments to voting. They also create the mix of pride and anger, the urgent sense that the march from Selma to Montgomery has to happen. The film invokes a high-pressure system whose winds are at the door of the Oval Office, which Lyndon Johnson has just been reelected to keep. Johnson receives King after Oslo and showers him with praise, still bewildered as to why King won’t accept the administration jobs he keeps offering. King just needs Johnson to get a Voting Rights Act passed. Johnson says it will have to wait; he wants credit for his other accomplishments, like the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the ongoing war on poverty. This version of the president knows he can’t rest on his laurels. But he also doesn’t know what to do about the moralizing nuisance he thinks King is. So before he musters the conviction to act accordingly, he lets J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) sic the FBI on the Kings in order to, as Hoover says, “weaken the home.”
The home-weakening scene speaks to the film’s sideways ambitions. In their Atlanta living room, Coretta is shown listening to a threatening recording of two people making love. “It’s not me,” Martin says. She doesn’t disagree. “I know what you sound like,” she says. But she gets the point. Ejogo’s performance presents a woman who loves and is proud of her husband but is no longer enamored of him. She’s weary. He’s caught. But the dramatics are kept to a minimum. You sense they’ve been here before. By this point, they’ve been together for almost a dozen years. Now the FBI is there with them.
The inclusion of a scene like this compounds the film’s audacity. Selma isn’t out to conventionally flatter or deify. The movie rejects the myth of the great man that Hollywood biographies are fond of peddling, the whitewashing that occurs because it’s assumed that audiences can’t reconcile internal complexity. DuVernay is comfortable with a saint who has sinned. She trusts that we can understand that imperfect, immoral people can also achieve greatness. King’s private behavior is, ultimately, separate from his political agenda. But it also contributes a note of humanity. So does a scene in which he sits on a porch and lights a cigarette, and another in which he jealously snipes at Coretta for meeting with Malcolm X.
Still, there is some sense of divinity that adheres to King, and it comes at the risk of making him appear lamblike in the eyes of the flock. Seconds after law enforcement stands aside to permit a second gathering to march from the bridge into Montgomery, King takes a minute to consider the weather. He turns around and wades into the sea of protesters. The leadership assembles in a church and debates what it means for King to have turned back. It’s a gorgeously done scene that might be too much. King is photographed with an enormous light above him and a glowing cross behind him. But when the meeting’s over, he’s shown from a new angle, headed up the aisle on a carpet whose blood-redness made me gasp. DuVernay has so elevated the stakes that even the décor portends the violent toll.
There’s a strategy in that sequence of shots. We watch Selma aware that King’s assassination is looming. So, in the movie, is he. That shadow is what intensifies the film’s heaviness, the responsibility King feels for the people walking with him. That’s what turns him back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, his heeding of the awareness that the limits of nonviolence are defined by the violent. Nonviolence can’t stop man’s uglier nature, his fear of change or whatever it is that makes him shoot and whip and beat unarmed activists. In fact, if nonviolence is effective, it will provoke such ugly retaliation. In that moment, God seemed to speak to King and say, Turn back. That red carpet in the church afterward is so striking because it’s an acknowledgment of all the deaths for this cause, and of the dying left to do. The bloodshed of his followers — of every race — is a source of his sadness and guilt. He can’t save them from pain. He can only lead them into it, into slaughter. But all there is to do about that is keep marching.
Any number of films now playing are proudly based on true stories — American Sniper, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, The Theory of Everything — and each saves its most interesting news for two or three screens of printed text in the final minutes explaining that so-and-so suffered greatly after the movie’s narrative version of events concludes, that he died. You mean, we just sat through a whole espionage thriller just to find out that the cold, dull protagonist was actually persecuted for and suicidal over a much more interesting, fraught, and complex gay life that the movie was too tasteful to explore? You mean the guy in Unbroken actually did break? Selma, too, saves news of King’s murder for the closing credits. But it’s not a pulled punch. The film assumes we know he’ll die. It conducts itself in grim premonition.
None of these people is permitted to be larger than the moment in this movie — not even the man framed with the Christ iconography. This makes Oyelowo (it’s pronounced “Oh-YELL-oh-woe”) an effective incarnation of King. He’s rescaled for proportionality. DuVernay could have leaned hard on speeches, but the film uses only a small handful. Instead, it’s seeing King rigid in a chair or curled on a bed that generates a gravitational pull. A good actor can get at King’s moral force, his playfulness and solemnity. But what made him so easy to follow was the richness and butter of his baritone, its ascent to the rafters, then the heavens. He was the Mahalia Jackson of oration.
I got chills when Oyelowo’s version eulogized the activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who was shot and died after police laid into a peaceful nighttime protest. But it’s not the real thing. Oyelowo is English (as are Ejogo, Wilkinson, and Roth), and there are times in a couple of sermons when he loses his grip on King’s cadences and comes yea close to an African dictator. The problem of reproducing King in a movie is that when he stood at a pulpit or with a microphone, he was inimitable. DuVernay knows this. Presumably in part out of respect for Oyelowo’s work, DuVernay makes sure that, by the time the film has dipped into stock footage of the actual march, the only King we hear is the voice of Oyelowo.
Not all of DuVernay’s choices are sound. Throughout the film, for instance, a time stamp with an FBI logo pops up along with type that makes its way across the screen, detailing what Martin and Coretta are up to. The idea is to remind us that these two were under constant surveillance. But the time stamps’ regularity and the font in which these transmissions appear cheapen the prevailing seriousness. What they’re meant to add can already be gleaned from the dialogue.
But this is an independent director who, like J.C. Chandor, has shown steroidal growth over three movies. DuVernay has worked to help other filmmakers work — sleeplessly, it seemed. Her previous film, Middle of Nowhere, was a melodrama about a woman weighing her romantic options while her man does prison time. That movie really believed in its heroine’s existentialism. But the leap from Nowhere to Selma is major. This is a large film with a lot of parts, but DuVernay controls them, managing to lend even the exterior shots intimacy. (Bradford Young shot both this movie and Chandor’s latest.)
Some of the film’s power transcends her control. This is a film about work: the work at hand, the work it takes to do the work, and, for an audience in 2015, the question of whether the work worked. DuVernay is never cute or explicit. No one says anything like, “If we work hard enough, we’ll have a black president!” There is no doubt that this forward momentum, all of this political progress — integration, mobilization, the right of blacks to vote without encumbrance, enfranchisement — has mattered. But when, in a moment of doubt, Abernathy tells King to keep his eye on the prize, King worries that he no longer knows what the prize even is. What good is integration when inequality persists? Some of the film’s success amounts to a sobering reality check: pride in the powerful events it portrays, dismay at the break in the arc of progress toward justice today. To what has all of this momentum amounted? A black president? Even Barack Obama would hear that and think, Come on now. But that was more or less the given explanation for the Supreme Court’s cynically optimistic 2013 undermining of the very legislation the film shows the movement fighting for. In striking down the part of the law that pertains to “preclearance,” which stipulates that a state with a history of discrimination, like Alabama, has to apply for and receive federal permission to change voting laws, the court essentially argued that electing a black man to the White House or African Americans to local positions of power obviates that sort of federal protection against voter discrimination.
You’re moved by the onscreen triumph and devastated by the sense that it has hit a wall. Marching meant everything in 1965 — but it means too many different things in 2015. In the past 50 years, the leadership that was so crucial to the passage of civil rights legislation has evaporated in moments of crisis. Protests persist — but what’s missing today are those moments in which the movement’s leaders gather to guide it. After the Selma police department and its state trooper counterpart made their brutal descent onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was a plan for what the marchers would do next — a plan that worked its way through activist networks, the court, and the media in constant coordination.
A lot has been made in the last half-year about the diffusion of leadership as opposed to its consolidation. What if, when it comes to criminal justice and racial discrimination, a black president and a black attorney general are only as powerful as the political thinkers and actors on the ground in communities? Black Twitter is one thing. Black leadership is something else. Some of the activism around the #BlackLivesMatter movement is, at best, a free-for-all. It feels closer to the anarchic energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement than it does to civil-rights-era protests. At its worst, it’s a farce — say, black protesters actually interrupting the brunches of white diners to make a point about brunch being some expression of white privilege.
In both New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, it’s been striking how law enforcement has followed a code, spoken a language with its bodies, and agreed upon a way to comport itself. The NYPD, for instance, appears to be in the middle of a major work stoppage in which everyday police work has undergone a demonstrably precipitous decline. Don’t have carfare? Hop the turnstile. Want to park illegally close to a fire hydrant? Go right ahead. The department is angry at a mayor it feels doesn’t support it. Since the slaying of two police officers last month by a depressed, chronic petty criminal, the department has laid the blame at City Hall. In hospitals and at funerals, one phalanx of officers after another has turned its back on the mayor, a white male who has openly expressed concern for the safety of his black son.
There’s been some outcry about what other cities whose forces scaled back policing have called “the blue flu.” Officially, the New York police are not on strike, in that they’re still being paid with public money. But they have their collective grievance aimed at one man in a way that threatens public order. The department’s tactics here, under the aegis of a relentless union leader named Patrick Lynch, are perversely resonant. It’s not the Alabama cops you think of, ominously arrayed at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s the shrewdly organized civil rights protesters. The moral upper hand continues to elude the NYPD, but walking out of Selma, the optics ring a bell.
The movie gets what made the civil rights movement such a seismic success: clashing titans — on the movement’s front lines, in the White House, and in the governor’s mansion. The stakes in Selma feel astronomical, and you feel the pressure and force — the dynamics — exerted between participants on each side. In Richie Jean Jackson’s living room, the various leaders debate each other about how best to pressure the White House. John Lewis pressures King; King pressures Johnson; Wallace pressures Johnson, who pressures him right back; the New York Times pressures the nation. The nonviolence philosophy is predicated upon a crazy-making calm that pressures an opposing force to violence. DuVernay makes clear the interplay among political and legal systems. She demonstrates the power of King’s organization to walk right up to the line of law and pressure institutions to change it. The faint hope this summer was that a figure with even some of King’s social and political shrewdness would emerge to connect the grassroots to the establishment. Believers in second comings might say, Take a number.
You would think a film this rich with contemporary resonance would have started a major national conversation about how far racial progress has come in 50 years. Well, it has — by accident. Since even before the film’s release, there’s been carping from historians and politicians who have bones to pick with everything from what the film gets wrong about the Jews in the civil rights movement (why aren’t they here?) to complaints that this version of King isn’t more of a genius. Predictably, most of the complaints have been about the film’s portrayal of Johnson. He’s shown here in a bind, and that bind has won the condemnation of academics and politicians who believe the film mischaracterizes Johnson’s relationship to King. The attackers feel that DuVernay doesn’t give Johnson enough credit for wanting to pass the Voting Rights Act, when really, the film opens itself to doubt because Wilkinson’s performance is a mess of dithering. Johnson’s bluster is missing — his bigness. You don’t know how this person managed to do the legendary negotiating that got the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 passed. But that’s not necessarily inaccuracy. It’s interpretation, the sort that directors and actors always traffic in.
On some level, the critiques are just rites of a fact-obsessed Oscar-campaign season. But the sniping also gets at the eternal modern question of whose history this is and who gets to tell it. A quick survey of film history suggests that the depiction of racial themes in America has always been the province of white directors, whether it’s something as spectacularly diabolical as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or the antebellum revenge of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. These great-man movies tend to reflect the aspirations and identities of the people who make them, which is how so many stories ostensibly about black life wind up with white interpolators. DuVernay understands the fraught, imbalanced legacy a film like this pulls her into, and she’s been as fair as she needs to be. This is not a film that undermines or questions Johnson’s ultimate contributions to the improvement of black life in this country. (It very easily could have mentioned the two decades in Congress he spent opposing civil rights legislation.) Inasmuch as there are villains, they are Wallace, Hoover, and Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark. But because this isn’t Johnson’s story, those accustomed to seeing the president as hero (or protagonist) ultimately seem dismayed by how little of the president there is here.
Johnson is ripe for a big movie in the Lincoln style. (In the 1980s, Johnson was the primary subject of two TV films, and in 2002 HBO gave him a sprawling treatment in Path to War.) Selma isn’t it. You can imagine another film about Selma focusing on Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs) and Boston minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), two white people compelled, like many others, to come to Selma after seeing the televised melee on the Pettus Bridge. They play small but important parts in DuVernay’s film; both wound up being murdered by white supremacists for their involvement in the cause.
But this movie is about the unified, concerted effort required to give black people the vote. And it is also about telling stories about the civil rights movement that more accurately reflect its participants. I imagine if DuVernay had a made a film about slavery, there’d be less to complain about. That’s not something the carping historians need to argue over, since the moral boundaries are clearer. But with Lyndon Johnson, she’s on gloried turf. What the film wants to show is that ridding racism from the country’s legal framework was hard — for King, for Johnson, for those working with either of them, and for those working with both. This is an industry and culture used to celebrating white people who’ve acted on behalf of blacks and the blacks who served them. In dramatizing the fight for a Voting Rights Act, you do sense that it’s a necessary — and defiant — cultural rebalancing that has upset people. Johnson’s not only the president of the United States here. He’s also the help.