Selma achieves something few historical films do: It captures a sense of events unfolding in the present tense, in a political and cultural climate as complex, multifaceted and undetermined as the times we live in.

It depicts characters who share important goals, but are not all on the same page in their priorities or their methods. It makes principles, expectations and choices that are taken for granted today subjects of plausible dispute and antagonism, even among those who want the same things. We also see characters who oppose those goals without coming across as movie villains.

It offers a portrait of one of the 20th century’s most iconic leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., here seen not as an icon, a saint or a prophet leading his people to divinely assured victory, but as a tactician carefully picking and choosing both his battles and his battlegrounds, at times worrying and doubting whether he has chosen well or poorly, and aware of the terrible cost that could result either way. 

He is a great man, but Selma knows history is not written by great men acting alone. For that matter, great men come with baggage that may at times be an impediment to the cause.

It’s no secret that King and Malcolm X (who appears briefly in the film) didn’t see eye to eye, among other things, on nonviolent resistance. It’s more surprising to see leaders of Selma’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”) not exactly welcoming King with open arms — in fact, questioning his motives and his commitment to their cause.

King’s response to that challenge confirms his greatness. As brilliantly portrayed by David Oyelowo (outstanding in The Butler as one of King’s supporters in Selma), King is charismatic and lucid, collaborative but in charge.

In a few brief, well-delivered lines, King highlights the urgency of the cause, praises the grassroots work of SNCC activists, highlights what distinguishes his own efforts on the national stage — and then asks for their input on whether conditions in Selma are right for his approach.

Consider all this scene does at once: It conveys important historical context about King’s recent successes and failures. It highlights different approaches to nonviolent resistance and illuminates what made King’s approach so effective, reclaiming it from its somewhat domesticated public image today as the deliberately provocative, courageous thing it was. Finally, it showcases what makes King such an effective leader: his intelligence and eloquence, his magnetism and his ability to turn conflict into consensus.

This is typical of Selma’s method. It is a talky film, but there’s always more going on than meets the eye. The film wisely focuses on one chapter in King’s long career — I love the fact that it’s called Selma rather than King — but the bigger picture is always in view. The screenplay, initially written by Paul Webb but significantly revised by director Ava DuVernay, picks its starting and ending points shrewdly, but is acutely aware that the struggle began long before the film starts, and when the film ends, it is far from over.

A well-crafted series of opening scenes sets the stage. We meet King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), in December 1964 in a hotel room in Oslo, Norway, where King is about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. King’s acceptance speech (paraphrased due to copyright issues involving the King estate and an unproduced film project) is presented in voiceover as the film cuts to a church stairwell, where a number of young girls in their Sunday best chatter about Coretta King’s hair. Even if you recognize that this scene, a flashback to Birmingham in 1963, illustrates King’s words about accepting the award “on behalf of our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path,” the dialogue lulls you into not expecting the horrific moment to come.

The aftermath fades into a voter registration form that an older black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), is carefully filling out. The connection between the two scenes highlights the ongoing reality of hatred and the threat of violence hanging over the efforts of people like Cooper who dare to exercise their rights. Cooper’s defeat in this scene leads directly to an Oval Office meeting between King and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who supports King’s cause but doesn’t give him the answer he wants on voting-rights legislation. So — “Selma it is,” King tells his companions as they leave the White House, and the stage is set.

Historical questions about the film’s depiction of Johnson and King as antagonists are somewhat overblown. Johnson is not a villain or adversary; Selma is clear that he supports civil rights and ranks the 1964 Civil Rights Act among his proudest achievements. But King, Johnson points out, has one issue; the president has many, and he considers the “War on Poverty” a more pressing priority than voting rights, which, “technically,” blacks already have. Thanks to the Cooper scene, we already know how hollow that “technically” is.

Occasional scene-setting introductory titles are given an ominous twist by presenting them as surveillance logs from FBI agents working for J. Edgar Hoover, who considers King “a political and moral degenerate.” King’s relationship with Coretta is warm and affectionate, but an unspoken tension exists between them, coming to the surface only once, in a scene of piercing frankness and sadness.

Selma is punctuated by sickening violence — sometimes courted and not unexpected, as in the notorious attack by state troopers of the Selma marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but at other times out of the blue and without warning, either for characters or viewers. In one scene a white character who has traveled to Selma to support King is chatting thoughtfully when he is abruptly attacked by vengeful locals. Nothing about the scene foreshadows that he is about to die.

The man is a pastor (another character calls him a “priest,” though he was actually a Unitarian), and the role of religion in Selma is one of the most gratifying things about the film. Selma not only highlights the centrality of King’s own faith to his actions, it shows how the civil-rights movement as a whole was animated by religious conviction, led by clergy of churches that were the backbone of the black community.

Even more heartening, after the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, King issues a call for solidarity from believers, and specifically clergy, of all races — and among those responding to this call are white Catholic priests, nuns and others who join King in a second march to the bridge. An Orthodox bishop — Archbishop Iakovos, Greek Orthodox primate of the Americas — is among them; there is also a rabbi. Archival footage of the third, successful march to Montgomery, seen in the final minutes of the film, attests to the truthfulness of this portrayal of ecumenical solidarity of Catholics and Protestants, blacks and whites at this crucial moment.

Pope John Paul II, addressing black Catholics in New Orleans in 1987, spoke of King’s “providential role” in “contributing to the rightful human betterment of black Americans and therefore to the improvement of American society itself.” He even went so far as to call King’s liberating action “a sign and expression of Christ’s paschal mystery, which in every age is effective in helping God’s people to pass from bondage into their glorious vocation of full Christian freedom.”

Selma — the first big-screen feature film to focus on King — is a vital, important cinematic tribute to this providential moment in history. It is also, in more ways than one, a pointed reminder that King’s work is far from over.

Last week, when my friend and fellow film critic Jeff Overstreet posted on Facebook about the Academy Awards’ widely derided snubbing of Selma in all but two categories (best picture and best original song), a white commenter replied, “They gave 12 Years a Slave the PC prize last year. I think it’s time for black Hollywood to find a new story to tell.” Think about that amazing comment when you watch Selma, and contemplate how far we have come — and how much remains to be done.

Read more:
Interview: Selma Actor David Oyelowo on Playing Martin Luther King Jr.
SDG’s Top Films of 2014

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.

 

Caveat Spectator: Scenes of strong violence; references to marital infidelity and brief audio of bedroom sounds; limited profanity, crude language and some racial epithets. Teens and up.