Review by Pamela Zoslov
Debate rages on over SELMA, Anna DuVernay's thoughtful and
rather beautiful account of the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to
Montgomery. Those defending the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson have
decried the film's portrayal of LBJ as a nemesis of Martin Luther
King and an obstacle to the Civil Rights movement, in their eyes a
significant distortion of history.
There is a certain villainy about DuVernay's LBJ, as portrayed by
Tom Wilkinson. With an unwieldy Texas accent, Wilkinson's LBJ berates
King for insisting he press for a voting rights bill now, rather than
defer it in favor of his top legislative priority, the War on Poverty.
The angry, adversarial tone of their Oval Office meetings seems a bit
implausible, and the film's implication that Johnson was complicit in
J. Edgar Hoover's contemptible surveillance and vindictive smear
campaign against King seems a bridge too far – even though LBJ was
a notoriously crude man and is suspected of having done things far
worse than opposing King. Hoover (played in the film by Dylan Baker)
was a dangerous and powerful psychopath, and the film uses as a narrative device data from FBI surveillance of King's movements. Johnson and King did clash,
but it was over the Vietnam War, after the events depicted in the
The film may be a bit unfair to Johnson, but DuVernay says
that was not her intention. “I think this has all been a bit
overblown, especially because this film is not about LBJ,” she told
Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air." “This is a film that's about the
people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who
came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma.
And one of those allies turned out to be, eventually, LBJ," whose speech announcing the Voting Rights Act, in which he quotes "We Shall Overcome," crowns the film triumphantly.
DuVernay, known for modestly budgeted independent films (made with "two dollars and a paper clip," she jokes), came to
the project after it had passed through five previous directors. She
rewrote the screenplay, though it's credited to the previous writer
Paul Webb (a contractual requirement). She undertook the herculean
task of writing speeches for David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King,
because the rights to MLK's speeches are owned by another filmmaker.
Oyelowo does not closely resemble King, nor does he mimic his soaring
oratorical style, which is to the film's advantage, even if the
speeches lack the music of Martin's. Oyelowo claims God told him he
would play Martin Luther King before he died, and held fast to that
idea through the film's tortuous seven-year road to completion. It was Oyelowo who enlisted DuVernay and saw that the film came to fruition. He plays the
civil rights leader with nuance and conviction. DuVernay has written
a King who's not a “plaster saint” but a man, with weaknesses,
doubts and failings. His worried wife, Coretta (played gracefully by
beautiful Carmen Ejogo), says she
feels surrounded by a “fog of death,” a feeling Martin confesses
he shares. That awareness of the likelihood of an early death would
become the theme of his final speech, delivered the night before he
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm
not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me
to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a
people, will get to the promised land!"
The film does address speculation about King's personal life. In a tense scene, Coretta plays for him the tape sent to her by
an FBI operative of an alleged adulterous MLK tryst. “Do you love me?” she asks her speechless husband. “Do you
love the others?”(The letter accompanying the tape, recently
declassified, was even worse – it urged King to commit suicide.)
The controversy over the LBJ portrayal points to something that
tends to afflict movies about race – it's always about the white
people. THE HELP, LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, LINCOLN
– so often they are about white people who helped blacks overcome
racism. But SELMA focuses on the movement – the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee workers who had started the hard work of
registering voters in Selma years before King's Southern Christian Leadership
Conference arrived, and the tensions and conflicts within and between
DuVernay also determined that her film would not compress
people into “composite” characters, so a great deal of care was
taken to make every person involved a full character. So we can learn
about and feel the pain of people like activist Annie Lee Cooper
(Oprah Winfrey, whose company produced the film), the civil rights
worker who was beaten outside the Dallas County Courthouse after
standing for hours in line to register to vote (Oprah is excellent in a scene where she is made to take a "poll test"). Jimmie Lee Jackson
(Keith Stanfield), shot to death by an Alabama State Trooper after
taking refuge in a restaurant with his mother and 83-year-old
grandfather, Cager Lee (Henry Lee Sanders), heartbroken at the sight of his grandson's murdered body at the morgue. Amelia
Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), beaten and left for dead when troops, under orders from Alabama Gov. George Wallace and armed with
guns, billy clubs, cattle prods, tear gas and masks, backed by more men on
horseback, advanced on the marchers and brutally assaulted them.
(Amelia Boynton Robinson is now 103 and was able to watch Selma.) James Reeb, a Boston minister who who answered MLK's call to clergy to join the march in Selma, clubbed to death by white segregationists.
A great many of the movement's important players are depicted: Andrew
Young, John Lewis, James Bevel, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Rev. Hosea Williams,
James Orange. Ralph Abernathy. Not everyone gets an entirely fair shake; Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) is portrayed, oddly, as making King jealous when he meets with Coretta while her husband is in jail. This New Republic essay complains that the
film ignores the radical grassroots origins of the movement in favor of a
“top-down narrative” that “enshrines the charismatic male
leadership of the movement.” The writer may be expecting too much
of a Hollywood film; this one seems to me to give a fuller picture of
the Civil Rights Movement than we usually see in fictional movies.
Quiet scenes of dialogue alternate with panoramas of explosive
violence, as shocking today as it was 50 years ago. Bradford Young's
chiaroscuro cinematography is evocative; his shots frame two speakers
with one face in partial shadow The staging of dramatic events like
the Birmingham church bombing that claimed the lives of four little
girls and Bloody Sunday as marchers are savagely beaten on the Edmund
Pettus Bridge (named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux
Klan leader) is breathtaking. The interspersing of real documentary
footage with the dramatic
re-creations is deftly handled.
Historical films always generate controversy. They can never
fully capture the reality of events. DuVernay's film, with its depth
of feeling, skillful handling, and high level of talent, and despite
a few “off” notes, lives up to its considerable ambition. It is sobering to realize that many of the battles that were fought a half-century ago (and well before that) are still being fought, as we march and protest in our own time for justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Ramarley Graham and other victims of racial hatred and murder. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.