This is a huge week for Ava DuVernay. In its first weekend in wide release, “Selma” brought in $11 million, pushing it well on its way to making back its $20 million budget and putting it at number 2 on the weekend gross chart (below “Taken 3”). The film didn’t win much at the Golden Globes on Sunday, but its one award, Best Original Song for Common and John Legend’s “Glory,” led to a terrific (and relevant) acceptance speech from Common. Finally, Thursday is Oscar nomination morning, and “Selma” should be poised for several well-deserved nominations.
“Should” is the key word there, because “Selma” hasn’t had the success in the various Oscar precursor awards that many expected it to. Whether it’s due to a problem of Paramount not getting the screeners out on time or, more likely, the manufactured controversy about the depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in the film (likely a ploy from “Selma’s” competitors), “Selma” has done poorly in the guild awards, missing out from the PGA, the WGA (which it wasn’t eligible for), SAG and, this afternoon, the DGA. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the film will be ignored by the Oscars, but it’s a puzzling problem considering that “Selma” is, on paper, the kind of film that awards bodies love, featuring a noble historical figure (check) fighting for civil rights (check) and against racism (check), and it’s being released only months after a number of high profile stories that only underline the relevance of its cause (check check check).
But “Selma” both is and isn’t the kind of historical drama favored by Oscar voters, and the differences are key to why it doesn’t seem as ossified or safe as “The Imitation Game” or “The Theory of Everything,” this year’s biopics-by-numbers. Where those films treat Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking as Noble Figures Meant to Do Great Things™, “Selma” always feels in the moment, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doubts and troubles never feel like preordained script beats. That’s because DuVernay and her cast foreground something that’s rarely a part of the biopic game: historical figures listening rather than speaking.
Early in the film, King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss the need to push the Voting Rights Act to the top of his agenda. As Johnson talks about the hundreds of different issues on his plate, DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young focus on King, leaning in and listening to Johnson, and, notably, pausing before speaking. King has to weigh the information Johnson is giving him to know how to proceed with what he needs to tell him. It’s a simple bit of directing from DuVernay and acting from Oyelowo, but it’s crucial to “Selma’s” success. Instead of marching into the room with a flowery speech about human rights, King is shown as a man who has to think diplomatically. This shows him not only as a shrewd political negotiator, but as a man rather than the righteously embalmed figure that the near-universally respected King could have been (for an example of that, see last year’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”).
This isn’t the last time the act of listening is highlighted in “Selma.” When one of the members of King’s march is killed, he meets with the dead man’s father, and DuVernay gives enough time to both men taking in what the other is saying in order to show the sincere connection he has with his followers. A mid-film scene shows King confronted by his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) after allegations of his extramarital affairs catch up with him. Both actors are shown listening to each other, Coretta to King’s apologies, King to Coretta’s frustrations, and it has the effect of fleshing out their marriage, making it feel like a living and breathing thing. It also gives the scene a greater impact, showing King as a flawed man without diminishing his accomplishments, which makes it feel like an essential part of the story rather than a moment that DuVernay feels compelled to get out of the way quickly.
Furthermore, King isn’t the only major historical figure who’s constantly shown weighing information in the film. In that first scene between King and Johnson, the latter comes into the room with a pre-prepared spiel about how the drive for voting rights is going to have to wait. It’s when King objects and says that it can’t wait that Johnson shifts, and DuVernay lets Wilkinson show that quick shift from LBJ’s diplomatic side to his more hard-edged one as Johnson quickly realizes that he can’t just buy off King with a dream deferred. Wilkinson gets an even better moment late in the film when he meets with Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) for a similar political meeting. At the meeting’s outset, he plays the diplomat, trying to convince Wallace to just let King have what he wants. DuVernay cuts to Roth, and he is, notably, not fully listening, giving Johnson a line of prepared bullshit. When she cuts back to Wilkinson, there’s another brief pause of Wilkinson taking it in and shifting to his more aggressive side, asking, “Are you trying to shit me?” It’s a brilliant bit of acting on top of being a moment that makes one want to cheer for Johnson in the theater, as he’s finally becoming the kind of president that King and his supporters want and need him to be.
The act of listening is a seriously undervalued part of film. Too often we remember the big speeches or monologues without remembering the moments in between — or, worse, we recall bad examples of cutaways to inspired faces at moments where a director doesn’t trust the audience to be inspired by themselves. The processing scene in “The Master” is effective not only because of Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured performance and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s confidence, but for the moments where we see the two actors have to listen and quickly react to what each other is bringing. The “coulda been a contender” scene in “On the Waterfront” is great not only because of Brando’s sad disappointment in his brother, but in Rod Steiger’s dawning realization in how much he’s let down his brother, all of which registers primarily on his face. Truly great acting doesn’t come in isolation, but in listening and reacting to the other performers, and great filmmakers realize that they’ll get more out of their actors if they spend a little time on the performer who isn’t speaking.
In “Selma,” Ava DuVernay has the benefit of history that still feels like an open wound rather than a healed one, but more importantly she makes it feel present-tense by always staying in the moment and showing how these men and women had to communicate with each other. Social change and history is made by people dropping talking points and buzzwords and finally listening to what the people have to say. Films about social issues and history should be no different, and “Selma” proves that.