King of kings

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

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

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