Thinking about Selma today, and all the choices director Ava DuVernay emphatically avoids making in her Martin Luther King biopic. The intelligence and nuance she brings to her film are undeniable.
I find many biopics to be marred by a certain cheapness: the “greatest hits” style storytelling, where you cherry-pick the highest and lowest moments of the subject’s life, creating an easily digestible trajectory; living, breathing people reduced to mere heroes and villains, with little affordance of ambiguity; and supporting characters that inject occasional doses of humor into the film but often derail its tone.
Nothing DuVernay does is ever on the nose. The film focuses only on one period of King’s life: the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which King and his fellow leaders organized in 1965 to bring attention to the overwhelming number of black people being denied the power to vote. Selma takes an established fact and implores us to see it as something beyond a success, taking us into the exact machinations of the political process, and the complicated tangles within the black community that led to it.
My elementary school-level US education may not be much to go on, but I was only ever taught to see MLK as a saint. In Selma, while you never doubt the fundamental righteousness of his vision, King is never deified. You see his savviness about using the media, how he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of innocent people to achieve a larger goal, and how he depends on his wife for emotional support even while he is not entirely faithful to her.
Equally important are the portrayals of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace. Despite Johnson’s reluctance to push for federal legislation that would allow black people to register to vote, you see that it wasn’t motivated by ignorance but also a resignation about bureaucratic/political processes that dictated how much he could push through. Likewise, while Wallace may have allowed the police to brutalize 500 peaceful black protesters, when you see him refer to the town’s head sheriff as a “white trash cracker”, you realize he’s not a racist bigot -- he’s a bigot, period, and that’s what is clouding his vision.
For lack of better phrasing, I also appreciated that Selma never forgets it is a work of cinema. The soundtrack choices are often pointed, such as the use of ethnographic recordings of workers in Selma singing. I especially loved the cinematography, which made frequent use of the actor’s profiles and often cloaked figures in shadow. (There is a stunning scene set behind bars where practically the only light you can see is the dim, fading light in MLK’s eyes.)
What is so painful about watching Selma is that it’s impossible to not think of recent headlines running parallel to the film. A scene of the Alabama girls being bombed in their church immediately links to the Charleston church shooting, and scenes of peaceful protesters being brutalized by policemen only brings to mind the horrific videos of policemen brazenly flouting protocol and killing or manhandling black civilians. I heard so many sniffles throughout the theatre during the film, but I only hope that people’s emotions didn’t stay in the theatre, and that the film started an actual conversation.