At an advance screening of Selma in Boca Raton this week, there was something in the air that deviated from the normally passive experience of moviegoing.
A communal energy hung as thickly as smog in the air-conditioned auditorium. Some of it was hopeful: Audience members clapped along to the protest songs on the movie’s soundtrack, shook their fists when appropriate, and applauded rousing snippets of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches as if they were watching King themselves from his church pulpit in 1965. The movie does that to you.
But the paroxysms of interactivity accompanied the more difficult portions, too. You could feel the energy shift from inspiration to horror, sadness, then rage as a bomb explodes in a Birmingham church, killing those four little girls — or as Alabama state troopers shoot and kill young civil rights protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death spurs the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. This is how Selma moves, painfully and accurately, in the fits and starts of upstream progress: a celebratory advancement followed by its heartbreaking backlash. One step forward, two steps back.
Directed by groundbreaking filmmaker and film distributor Ana DuVernay (she’s the first black female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination), Selma is not a cradle-to-grave Martin Luther King Jr. biopic along the lines of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Instead, she focuses only on the events from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing through the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, arguably King’s most significant legal accomplishment.
This was a smart decision, because rather than crafting a formulaic procession of Great Man signposts, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb capture the entire scope of the movement, from its agitators to its obstructionists, creating a comprehensive historical re-enactment from the stuff of Hollywood.
The heroes include student activist John Lewis (Stephan James), the future Georgia congressman, beaten down by authorities but rising back with more fire than ever; Annie Lee Cooper (a deeply moving Oprah Winfrey), one of the leaders in fighting voter suppression, who famously punched the racist Selma sheriff Jim Clark; and Frank Johnson (Martin Sheen, ever the progressive populist), whose landmark civil rights cases included Williams v. Wallace, which officially permitted the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
You’re more familiar with the villains, who are also granted plenty of screen time to air their regressive, punishing views. Tim Roth is perfectly reptilian as George Wallace, the face of pure hatred cloaked in Southern, electable charm. Dylan Baker plays J. Edgar Hoover, and even though he appears briefly, he’s a poisonous snake in a three-piece suit — certainly better casting than Leonardo DiCaprio. As for President Johnson, he’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, acting as a broker between the needs and positions of King and Wallace, dragging his feet before finally doing the right thing, and cementing his legacy in the process. Tom Wilkinson immerses himself in the part while making it his own and avoiding mimicry.
As for King, the Golden Globe-nominated David Oyelowo disappears into the part, capturing the reverend’s stentorian delivery and oratorical majesty. The King of Selma is not a saint. Glimpses into his home life with Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) reveal his flaws — namely his philandering — as well as his virtues. In one of the best scenes in Selma, Coretta asks him if he loved any of the women he seduced (or vice versa), and Oyelowo adds a long beat before saying, “no”— a pause pregnant with the mental Rolodex of his affairs.
DuVernay and Webb also manage to tackle another controversial aspect of King’s life: the FBI surveillance on his actions, initially ordered by Johnson but likely taken to obsessive extremes by Hoover. Webb’s script is footnoted with official FBI logs taken from on-the-ground spies, home bugs and telephone wiretaps. Snippets from these logs appear at the bottom of the screen at key intervals, offering frequent reminders that Big Brother was always watching King, who was as much an enemy of the state as a savior to his nation.
This sort of surveillance, of course, is quaint compared with the NSA’s constitutional debasement today. Regression abounds in race relations, too. Racist voter suppression remains rampant in states such as North Carolina, and even though John Legend and Common reference Ferguson on their protest song “Glory,” which runs over the closing credits of Selma, the director needn’t prompt us of the parallels: Seeing the movie’s images of police in riot gear beating unarmed African-Americans to bloody pulps on the streets and in the bars of Alabama are enough of a reminder that in some respects, little has changed since the groundbreaking events of 1965.
We’re long overdue for a sobering national discussion on race, and Selma could not have been released at a better time.
SELMA. Director: Ana DuVernay; Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Stephan James, Giovanni Ribisi, Colman Domingo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Dylan Baker; Distributor: Paramount; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters