“Selma” shows a Dr. King who is human, conflicted and brave—and not a saint
“Selma” is a film that was undoubtedly challenging to make. How do you make a film about a cultural touchstone, a figure both legendary and mythical, a martyr for a distinctly American cause, someone that is arguably more powerful and highly regarded than any figure in American history?
For those of us that came after the civil rights movement, those of us who have witnessed the change they wrought, who live in a very different world from our parents, Martin Luther King Jr. is a name that stands alongside Lincoln and Washington, a founder born a century and half out of time.
No one in my generation witnessed his controversial nature; those feelings were lost in the great leaps made in his absence and now they are only a whisper in a background of praise. Any film that hopes to show a man and not a deity needs to look for uncertainty. Divinity is certain—men are never quite so sure.
“Selma” takes the man behind the legend and shows him as he is: a leader for a community shamed and beaten into compliance, doing what he can, fearing the outcomes for his people. It is a deserving and strong film marking a time in history not soon forgotten.
The film begins as King is waiting to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, practicing his speech and worrying about his tie. The first moments of doubt set the tone for what is to follow. As powerful an orator and as strong a writer as King is, the film paints him differently away from the crowds.
The biggest success of “Selma” is its depiction of King off-stage, showing a reflective aspect of a man known for fiery rhetoric and unyielding determination. Much like everyone, King was only doing what he thought needed to be done. He had no foresight into the results, only that he needed to try. There are many times in the film that it appears the events in Selma, Alabama would have little effect on the movement. The television cameras were on, the viewers were horrified, but attention span was limited in the advent of television, just as it is today. The reactions to the protests were fragile.
King only knew that in the South there would always be another battle. His concern was if the blood spilled during the current battle was needed. These doubts are detailed and powerful in the film, as are the efforts to discredit King and stop him from continuing his campaign. In spite of all this, the truth marched on.
Amplifying these doubts is the exceptional performance by David Oyelowo, a relatively unknown but highly talented British actor. Many of the actors in the film aren’t household names. American movies tend to prefer using the same four or five black actors for everything, rather than having a variety of talents to choose from.
In addition to the excellent performances, the direction by Ava DuVerney is careful and complex. DuVerney has only a couple of features under her belt and a handful of television documentaries and episodes, yet she shows capabilities far beyond her meager resume as a director.
That the Academy had the opportunity to nominate the first female black director for the “Best Director” category and did not is a strange decision, especially given that “Selma” is likely a frontrunner for “Best Picture” this year. Who do they think was in charge of the film? It is a slight that is not easily understandable.
“Selma” is a strong, entertaining historical film that should be seen by every American. It is especially timely given the events in Ferguson and recent protests in New York. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught a country how to protest. Violence should be roundly rejected, but understanding and supporting civil disobedience is a quintessential part of the American experience.
I have heard complaints about the “die-ins” in Nashville as being overly provocative. Stopping interstate travel to protest white complacency in the face of police brutality is likely unpopular as well. But then, that’s the point. Protests should be uncomfortable. They should make those in power feel uncomfortable and outraged. We learned that from a preacher from Atlanta. We are reminded of it by films like “Selma.”