King of kings
Selma, biopic, rated PG-13, Regal Stadium 14, 3 chiles When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, there was rapturous talk of a post-racial America, but it did not take long to chill that bud of optimism. A recalcitrant Congress determined to deny the barrierbreaking president any measure of success, whatever the cost, blocked bills, appointments, and initiatives at every turn. And, in the past year, a poisonous undercurrent of racism that does not define but nevertheless plagues too many of the nation’s police forces surfaced in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities, to underscore the hazards of being young, black, and male in the Land of the Free.
Half a century ago, the civil rights attack on Jim Crow in this country was just coming to a boil under the leadership of a charismatic young Atlanta preacher, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And one of the watersheds of that movement was a massive protest march bound from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital at Montgomery, 50 miles away, to bring pressure for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That event is the centerpiece and focus of Selma, the uneven but powerful film from director Ava DuVernay that puts America’s greatest civil rights leader at the center of a major theatrical release for the first time.
Hollywood is not entirely to blame for King’s absence from the big screen. The great activist’s warring heirs have blocked various proposed film projects, and DuVernay and her producers (including Oprah Winfrey, who appears in a small but key role) were denied permission to use his speeches. Screenwriter Paul Webb was forced to paraphrase and pastiche to create the feeling of King’s oratory without using his actual words.
DuVernay is breaking barriers of her own as a young ( she is forty- two) black female director at the helm of a major motion picture. On the whole, she does a solid job. She begins with a moment of quiet humanity: King (David Oyelowo) is practicing his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize and fussing over the pretentiousness of the formal wardrobe required for the event, as his wife, Coretta Scott King (a lovely Carmen Ejogo), soothes him and helps him with his ascot.
As DuVernay follows the events that lead to the Selma march, she does well with these intimate moments, moments that emphasize the humanity and vulnerability of the men and women who put their lives on the line in the cause of freedom. Make no mistake — blood was in the air, and the courage it took to stand up peacefully against the might of apartheid Southern law enforcement armed with clubs, whips, dogs, and guns, with no defense but courage and conviction, was extraordinary. These moments, too, the movie nails, forcing us to stare, as stunned television audiences did in 1965, into the face of state-sponsored racism, belligerent ignorance, and horrific violence.
Some of the casting is uncannily good, particularly when it comes to King’s inner circle, as well as in a memorable short bit by Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X. In other places, the casting leaves itself open to criticism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson by the great English actor Tom Wilkinson. Wilkinson has the physical size to convey LBJ, and he plays his scenes with power and conviction, but his accent is borrowed, and there is little of the dust of a hardscrabble Texas background. (Oyelowo and Ejogo are also British, as is Tim Roth, who plays Alabama Governor George Wallace.)
There has been a lot of controversy over the way Selma depicts the character of LBJ. Some historians and former associates have taken exception to the film’s image of a Johnson bitterly and bullyingly opposing King’s drive for voting-rights legislation. Selma goes so far as to suggest that the president actively conspired with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to smear and harass King. Johnson’s priorities were certainly different from King’s, but this may tilt the table too far.
“Everybody has to take license in movies like this,” one historian told The New York Times. “But with the portrayal of LBJ, I kept thinking, ‘ Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ” Getting this right is important in a film that means to tell it like it is and bring an ugly chapter of American history to light for a new generation still feeling its effects.
In most measures, Selma succeeds. Oyelowo gives us an MLK in whom quiet, deeply religious and social convictions triumph over human doubts and weaknesses. If he occasionally falls just short of the soaring eloquence that stirred a nation to examine its conscience, he does come close to it.
In the film’s closing moments, DuVernay shuffles in actual footage of the 1965 march, black-and-white film of the real men and women who changed the way America saw the face of its professed ideals and practice in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. We never doubt it’s the same people we’ve been watching all along.
— Jonathan Richards
In union there is strength: David Oyelowo (back row, center) as Martin Luther King Jr.
Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper