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AFI Fest Review: ‘Selma’ Is a Definitive Portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a Movement

AFI Fest Review: 'Selma' Is a Definitive Portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a Movement

In any historical record, there’s an official
narrative and a human narrative. The human narrative in Ava DuVernay’s epic
film “Selma,” shows us four little
girls
dressed in their Sunday best, talking about hairstyles when their bodies
are blown away in an explosion of fire and hate. This scene establishes the
severity of white supremacist violence in America at this time, just a year
before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The official
narrative, available in many schools and media, gives us a
sanitized chronology of events that are replayed every black history
month. The official narrative gives us a holiday to celebrate a speech. This
film gives a thorough treatment centered on a man and a movement.

“Selma”
is the definitive human portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of
activists fighting for unrestricted voting rights for black people, which
culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon
B. Johnson and a successful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
But it took lives, pain, and community to get there. This film is about those
moments in between the back-room deals where the fates of lives were brokered.
It documents the human struggles, doubts, tactful strategies, and persistence that rendered change.

At a preview screening of “Selma” at the
Urbanworld Film Festival, I heard David Oyelowo speak, tearfully, of being
called by a higher power to play Martin Luther King Jr.  After seeing this film, I understand. I
understand and feel the physical and internal investment that he made to
transform into this man, which involved more than a change in accent and
mannerisms. In one of the best scenes, he calls Mahalia Jackson (played by singer Ledisi), and is soothed
by her singing a gospel song to him over the phone. He was a person who needed
this to go on.

In school we learned that Martin Luther King
Jr. had a dream, that he stood for non-violence, and loved all people. His
narrative often serves a safe, comfortable agenda for purposes of national
pride and a sense of American unity. This film is not concerned with making
anyone comfortable, because in many moments, Martin Luther King Jr. was not
comfortable. The movement was not comfortable when people could be harmed or murdered
at any moment.

A peaceful evening march in Marion,
Alabama quickly turns into a sight of horror. This scene, shot
in dark shadows and harsh light by DP Bradford Young is masterful in setting
the stakes of this movement. LaKeith Stanfield plays Jimmie Lee Jackson, a
young black man who marches with his 84-year old grandfather and mother for the
right to vote. Stanfield breathes youthful vulnerability and defiance into this
brief role, and makes us yearn for justice.

By centering on this distinct moment in time, Paul
Webb’s script avoids the traps and clichés of so many biopics attempting to
condense whole lives into a few hours by offering big themes that never get
explored. There are no wasted moments here. There are no wasted characters. The
film is as much about Martin Luther King Jr. as it is about the people he
worked with, and fought for. It is also about him as a man in love with Coretta
Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), and the marital issues they faced. Other directors would’ve taken
the opportunity to scandalize this element, but Ava brings it into a close,
intimate moment, complicating the Hallmark image we’ve come to know. Martin Luther King Jr. was a person.  

Furthering the communal emphasis of the film, DuVernay
and Young make sure to frame the black faces of the movement in close-ups, and to
show the massive carnage that erupts during Bloody Sunday- their first attempt
to march across the Edmund Pettus bridge where a young black girl races for her
life from a white man on horse with a whip. Bradford Young makes some serious
aesthetic contributions to the world of this film. I think he should also be
nominated for an Oscar, alongside DuVernay.

Performances are strong across the board. Tim
Roth as the shrewd, racist Alabama Governor George Wallace and Tom Wilkinson as
Lyndon B. Johnson add needed dimensionality to the obstacles and faulty
allegiances that Martin Luther King Jr. navigated. Carmen Ejogo strikes an
uncanny resemblance and almost scary likeness to Coretta Scott King in several
scenes. People thinking that this film is a vehicle for Oprah or the second
coming of The Butler will be proven
wrong.

This film does more to advance new conversations
on the legacy of human rights and the ever-present threat of violence and
trauma in black life- something that seems so regular within the racist
hierarchies that allow it, but when broadcast across the world and into homes of
fellow human beings, becomes grotesque. There is no way to watch this film and
not think of Ferguson, of Trayvon walking home, of Renisha McBride, of the
severity and sudden violence lurking around corners of black life. Rarely has a
film been able to merge an epic dramatic event with social critique, and still make make it human. “Selma” accomplishes this feat. “Selma” is the human narrative.

 

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