[It’s] a movie about hope, about people in this country who, when they all come together, can make anything happen. – Dr. Robert J. Jones, SUNY University at Albany President, commenting after a special screening for Selma, Jan. 6th, at Colonie Center.
Produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, Selma provides a sober-eyed look into the world Dr. Martin Luther King worked to transform, through the convergence of people and events that led to President Lyndon Johnson’s enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The finished product is exceptional, but some of the ingredients that went into it might raise a few eyebrows.
The first major motion picture to focus on King, Selma wisely chooses a major event and portrays the times as much as the leader. To try and create a biopic of the man and fit it into two hours would have felt rushed and not deeply informing. By limiting the period, the limited time of a film allows for specific figures and moments to linger, giving the viewer an intimate sense of the people and their motivations. While many films might allow brief appearances in order to fit many people in, Selma revisits numerous characters, so by the end of the film, we’ve memorized a dozen or more faces and the names that go with them, and are left with a strong sense of who they were and the role the played in history. And while at times the delivery is especially theatrical, each major actor (and several minor) is handed a lengthy soliloquy, and all do them justice.
Oprah’s minor role introduces us to the harsh realities of living in the Jim Crow South, and it’s nice to be reminded what a phenomenal actor she is. There isn’t another performance in the film that doesn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with hers. And, Oyelowo’s King is suprerb, the result of his documented perfecting of his impersonation long before this film.
This alludes to one of the more interesting facts about the film: nearly every major role is portrayed by a Briton. King, Coretta, LBJ, Gov. George Wallace, even the minister James Reeb are all played by British actors. Their accents are remarkable, though at least Tim Roth (who plays Wallace) is notorious for his remarkable vocal impressions.
In the cinematography we find one of the weaker points of the film, but even this is a minor complaint: the film often seems in soft focus. It could have been the particular screening, but it was noticeable throughout. At the same time, artistic choices prove at least effective, and sometimes unusual. Aside from King’s speeches, most deep introspection is conveyed through the aforementioned soliloquys – and almost always shot at night. This allows the lighting to dim, with only the speaker illuminated. It’s not just obviously visual symbolism, but it strongly reminds of those busts of famous historical figure dioramas in museums – the ones with 6 or 8 statues, all bathed in darkness, and when a bright light shines on one, a voice-over in deep, paternal tones recites a famous speech from that particular luminary. Each scene in Selma feels emotionally equivalent to those stagey museum presentations, yet the story flows through them effortlessly. One of the most effective of the introspective scenes involves Coretta’s confrontation of King for his infidelity. The subject is so respectfully handled King doesn’t even acknowledge it directly – rather, alluding to it by acknowledging his feelings in general. This treatment proves infinitely more impactful than any grand admission or domestic argument, or worse, trying to concoct a scene of actual infidelity.
Daytime scenes largely focus on interactions between people and the advance of the movement overall. Aside from the technical issue, authenticity is displayed exceptionally convincingly. The screen in awash in oranges and almonds, lime chiffons and mustard yellows, terrazo and formica, and lots and lots of chrome and oval. If you remember these from your childhood, Selma actually makes you miss them.
Some will note a few factual inconsistencies in the film. Most important, many historians disagree with the portrayal of LBJ. Specifically, they argue he was deeply committed to King’s agenda, but wanted to strategize. In particular, he felt Congress and the American public could only take change in small doses, and Johnson’s War on Poverty could become policy more easily – and make the Voting Rights Act more palitable relative to the resulting political climate. King’s agenda wasn’t at loggerheads with LBJ, but rather, just unfortunately timed. Also, it’s factually incorrect to show LBJ authorizing wiretaps on King and others in the movement, as Kennedy was responsible for that.
In fact, Robert Kennedy was taping King’s offices to keep track of known Communist party operatives planted around King. His interest in King spiked after King secretly retained counsel with one of the Communist agents after Kennedy asked King to fire the man and break off all contact. (Kennedy feared if MLK were publicly outed for knowingly affiliating with communists, there’d be blow-back on the White House.). Further, the tape recordings of King’s infidelities were delivered to King before his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – an event portrayed at the beginning of the film. And there’s nothing to suggest Johnson had anything to do with this. It’s also widely accepted fact that Hoover was a power-fiend, virtually impervious to external influence – unlike the executive lapdog Dylan Baker plays in Selma. There’s a great article at The Atlantic recounting historical perspectives and that favored by Selma (and the similar portrayal in Leonardo DiCaprio fronted Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar) and it’s well worth the read.
Oh, and that confrontation between Coretta and Dr. King regarding his infidelity? In truth, it began over the phone, in very animated, angry tones. And when Dr. King listens to the tapes with her, several advisers are also present. But these are technical omissions and would distract from the emotional themes the film intends to highlight.
Early in the film, the director stages the first meeting between King and Johnson with Johnson standing back. He introduces King to one of Johnson’s advisers, Lee White. With symbolism bashing viewers over the head, White and King shake hands, facing off like boxers just stepped into the ring. But it’s also true Johnson maintained an ‘outside man,’ who was black, for regular communications with civil rights leaders, and White has been quoted as naming his counsel to Johnson on development of the Voting Rights Act as his most important work at the White House. The film omits or alters these elements, again to enhance dramatic tension.
Let’s be honest, it’s a phenomenal speech – until the 20 min mark or so.
The film vacillates between portraying LBJ as an obstacle and a sympathizer, and it sometimes feels manipulated for increased drama. In fact, the two African American members of Johnson’s advisory staff, and others, dispute his portrayal and that of supposedly contentious meetings with King (and others), and recount many other notable civil rights related actions on Johnson’s part (including nominating minorities for various posts) – as described in an article on theroot.com.
Despite these and other criticisms of artistic liberties, Selma director Ava DuVernay has vociferously defended her vision. Her portrayal of Johnson’s two personalities isn’t entirely unfair, given the sometimes deeply racist habits Johnson biographers recount.
On authenticity, it might come as a shock, but King’s speeches in Selma aren’t real. They sound real. They sound great. But like all great and authentic things, King’s legacy eventually became intellectual property to be sold at great profit. Sadly for the producers of Selma, the rights to the relevant speeches here had already been licensed to other films. As a result, what you hear in Selma are rewrites that approximate the style, tone, and passion found in King’s words, but these are not true originals. Unlike some other great writing (ahem, The Hobbit, <cough, cough=””>), the result is rousingly effective. Alternately, the actors’ sense of the importance of the film is often palpable, bordering on distraction. David Oyelow’s King, for example, speaks at home the same way he delivers his speeches. (Most people leave work at the office). Even so, with such compelling material, it never really matters.
Ultimately, this is a story of themes and significant moments, and softening the details allows Selma to distill out the totality of relationships and final outcomes of the protests, so DuVrays’ arguments are valid. This is an artistic exercise as much as a documentary and biography.
One more interesting fact about the film: how quickly it went from production to theaters. Maybe this is becoming the norm, but principal photography began on May 20th of last year. Filming concluded, it was edited, and the film first screened at the AFI Film Festival on November 11th – less than 6 months later. Though rushed, this isn’t necessarily coincidence: 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the events, including the night-time march of February 18th, 1965, and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed on August 6th that same year. It also doesn’t hurt to have achieved a limited release to theaters by December 25th, making it eligible for Oscars consideration this February 22nd – right in the middle of the 50th anniversary of those events.
The furious work to make it happen pays off, delivering a simultaneously cinematographic and informative portrayal of gripping drama, intimate introspections, horrifying tragedy, and uplifting victories – made all the more invigorating in the knowledge that the themes, the people, and events depicted are real. And they manage to fit it all into a 2 hour docudrama- only slightly stretched at the seams. Selma deals with extreme violence and intense bigotry that would normally be reserved for the over 17 crowd, but given this is our American history, it’s the sort of material that any mature young person should be taken to see.