One of modern history’s greatest figures was gunned down at a motel in Memphis, Tenn. on Apr. 4, 1968. He was only 39 years old. But in his four decades of life on Earth, his accomplishments during the Civil Rights movement were many. We learned in our elementary school history classes the magnitude of everything Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists were able to achieve in the face of intolerance, painting an idealist Dr. King, and rightfully so. This, however, can make us forget that he was a flawed human, not just a leader of peace. If Ava DuVernay captured any element of history in her film “Selma,” it is this.
Any historical drama could have depicted the ugly, brutal atrocities committed against African Americans and the hatred spewed out by many white southerners, but “Selma” goes beyond that. If there is any word that can accurately describe the film as a whole, it is “volatile.” The film opens with the 1964 Birmingham church bombings and remains a gut punch throughout. Scenes of violence are kinetically filmed and edited to emphasize the chaos of the events. Additionally, while these scenes provide necessary reality checks for the viewer, they are few in number and spaced out evenly enough to keep the flow of the story from being derailed and draining the viewers’ spirits.
One scene of violence was particularly well-constructed. This depiction of the night march in Marion, Ala. before the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson uses low-key lighting that turns every person on screen, perpetrators and victims alike, into black bodies with light outlines. The lighting choice magnifies the event’s horrific violence, emphasizing that humans were causing bodily harm to other humans and not just acting out of racially-motivated violence. It also contributes to a build up to the death of Jackson, whose murder inspired the marches to Montgomery.
Any movie chronicling the achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr., however, will only ever have one focus, and that is the man himself. Rather than take the formulaic biopic route of glorifying the myth over the man, “Selma” does the opposite. DuVernay depicts him evenly as one of the people, as well as the voice of, a movement. She fearlessly portrays him as an important, yet imperfect, figure, delving into his problems with extramarital affairs in a secondary plotline that climaxes with a silent intensity.
Despite this subplot, he remains a sympathetic character because, as any audience member knows, he was bigger than his problems and persevered with necessary fortitude. None of this would have been accomplished, however, without a worthy lead performance from David Oyelowo. His portrayal is equal parts strong and tragic, all the while remaining consistently complex. No matter what any awards committee says, Oyelowo makes one of the best, if not the best, performances of the year in a role that few actors could do justice.
In the end, forget about the Oscars. They may have given “Selma” the Best Picture nomination it deserved, but they misfired not once, but twice by denying DuVernay and Oyelowo their respective Best Director and Best Actor nominations. “Selma” may have a few moments of melodrama and sparked controversy by taking artistic license, but these faults are insignificant compared to the film’s weighty importance and timeliness given the current climate of race relations. The film’s ending feels victorious, but it’s still a subtle reminder that it was only one step out of many in the fight for equality.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered by the same intolerance he fought against and left far before his time. He did not live through the second half of his life and see what his work accomplished. He was always more than a voice for change, and “Selma” is that healthy reminder.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars