By Samiira Garane (writer for Araweelo Abroad)
As the film opens, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) stands before a crowd. It is 1964, and he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway. We’ve heard all about this part of MLK’s story. Before we have time to assume that this is another watered down retelling of the glorious Martin Luther King whose career defining speech was only four words long and was reduced to street names and a national holiday, the film quickly picks up pace. We find ourselves back in Birmingham, Alabama. Four black girls, dressed in fluffy dresses as they clutch flowers, are engaged in deep conversation as they descend down a church stairwell. Suddenly, we are jolted into reality with the brutal murder of the girls as the building suddenly explodes. Their bodies are shown being flung into the air and they are buried beneath the rubble of the 16th street Baptist Church. The death of the girls serves as a catalyst for all the events that take place in Selma. Ava DuVernay lingers on them for a long time, as if to mourn them. It is shown in agonizing slow motion. It seems unreal, as if it isn’t actually happening.
DuVernay is determined to show the violence on the screen unapologetically. The violence in Selma, to DuVernay is a tribute to the victims. Violence for violence sake is not in her vocabulary. For every blow from a police baton and every gun cartridge emptied into the body of a black person there are dire emotional consequences. We are shown Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death as a tragedy that propelled the Alabama marches forward. Cooper’s courage as she grabbles with armed officers seems instinctual as she attempts to protect Jackson. Amelia Boynton’s bloodied and unconscious body flashing on the screen during the Bloody Sunday march as the image of her pain and resistance is distributed across the world. DuVernay wants you to acknowledge them and consider the brutalization of black people at that time and certainly even now.
The film, is also balanced with a moments of bitter humour and charm. The kind often expressed by those who feel the weight of their oppression daily. In one instance, after a protest goes awry, King suggests to his friend that the jail cell is probably bugged. They both laugh deeply. As if to say ‘this is how it is but we won’t let it discourage us’. Every dark moment is followed by hope. Every tragedy followed by determination to see justice and every failure followed by a second attempt. DuVernay has captured the spirit of Martin Luther King. A spirit that would not be deterred. But more importantly, DuVernay captures the spirit of the black community in Selma, Alabama as they refused to give up despite the battles and human cost.
The film is underpinned by the cinematography of Bradford Young (Mother of George). The vivid colours and lighting that welcomes black visibility. It is refreshing to a see a film conscious of black skin, bodies, and faces. The film is not short of beauty, even the painful is visibly beautiful. The film is cinematic and its detail bring to memory Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. The films are very different but it is the content and the consideration of black skin on screen that makes Selma resonate with Lee’s film.
Selma provides an honest portrayal of King. In one of the more intimate scenes, King makes a phone call to Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), gospel singer and civil rights activist. King in a moment of vulnerability, asks Jackson to sing for him. As Jackson sings an old spiritual to him, King is visibly overcome with emotion and the heaviness he carries is seemingly lifted. We see a man in need of healing and strength. A human being overwhelming with the enormity of the task he is trying to accomplish. The film is filled with nuances like this that take King and reveal him as a mere and fragile mortal. DuVernay takes King, a man shrouded in glory and lets him slip out of the legacy built around him. In one scene, we see King close up, shoulders hunched in a chair in his own home. We also see him, as we always do, behind the podium. Both depictions are true reflections of him in this film.
The magnificent David Oyelowo resurrects King, and at times it easy to forget that Oyelowo is not actually Dr King. Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) powerfully asserts herself as King’s wife. It is odd to think that many of the women in the film were not included in the original script seeing as they are such an integral part of the movement despite the male dominated leadership. DuVernay goes to great lengths to change that and recognize the female voices of the movement. Coretta King was a force to be reckoned during the Civil Rights Movement. She supposedly expressed a dissatisfaction of how she was regarded as simply King’s wife. In Selma the extent of her involvement is not explored in detail. However, Coretta King’s achievements go beyond being the wife of Martin Luther King. We get a glimpse of her as she perhaps saw herself, when she goes toe-to-toe with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and later with King while he is locked up. We see her support for the women of the movement when she walks arm in arm with Amelia Boynton. She is shown at the front lines during the Alabama March and at King’s side almost always. Coretta King’s depiction in Selma does her more justice than most depictions of her have. Here she is not side lined but her contributions to King and the movement are hinted at. She had a life long before Martin Luther King and a life a long time after his death; she was a civil rights activist in her own right. Selma offers a expanded perspective of who Coretta King was, one that seems is deserving of a film of it’s own.
Aside from the 1960s attire, many events from the film could have happened today. When Jimmy Lee Jackson is shot, one cannot help but think of Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant. When Annie Lee Cooper is held in a chokehold by a police officer wielding a baton, Eric Garner springs to mind. Whether done deliberately or unconsciously the film challenges our notions of a post racial society. In one vivid scene, Martin Luther King and John Lewis (Stephan James) sit in the car together and Lewis begins to talk about a march he had been in, where a white mob attacked him. He goes on to talk about how a little white girl was clawing at his face in hatred as her father beat him. As he tells the story, the scene hints that there can be no post racial society so long as the younger generations grow the seeds of hatred within them that their parents also grew. Additionally, much of the violence inflicted on black bodies in the film is at the hands of the police or the state. As we see black bodies brutalized through out the film, there is a sense that nothing has changed.
DuVernay does not reiterate already exhausted facts about Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement. She goes deeper and lets us view Martin Luther King and Coretta King in a way we haven’t seen them before. We experience the friction in their relationship and Kings own internalized struggle. DuVernay not only challenges our perceptions of Dr. King, but she challenges our perception of the protestors and of the struggle. Selma could not come at a better time. DuVernay effectively communicated that the battle for equity and freedom for black people will only continue.
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures