“Selma”: Bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice

SELMA

“Selma” is now playing at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 2:07, four stars out of four.

History does not have to happen. Years after, it seems inevitable that African-Americans would have gotten the right to vote, just as years from now it will seem inevitable that gay people would get the right to marry, or someday it will seem inevitable that African-Americans would be treated fairly by the criminal justice system.

But it does not just happen on its own. It happens because people put their shoulder to the wheel and push, push their leaders to act, push their media to listen, push their countrymen to see. It requires hard work and diligence and suffering to, as one character in “Selma” puts it, “build the path best we can. Rock by rock.”

Ava DuVernay’s astonishing film “Selma” is not a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr., although it offers tremendous insight into the man. It’s the story of the movement that King led, focused entirely on a three-month period in 1965 when King and his followers waged a dangerous campaign to secure true voting equality for African-Americans.

Because “Selma” has this focus, it avoids so many of the pitfalls of the biopic, the temptation to glorify or explain away a man’s life. It just concentrates on the man, what he did and why he did it during those three months, and it makes for a film that is compact, fascinating, and powerful.

African-Americans had the “right” to vote in 1965, but that right was impossible to exercise in the South, where white government officials threw up roadblocks like poll taxes and tests (“How many county judges are there in Alabama?” “67.” “Name them.”) to keep the electorate all white.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (a really strong Tom Wilkinson) is an ally of King, but doesn’t want to have this fight with the likes of Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) now, preferring to pivot towards anti-poverty legislation. But King said equal voting rights are paramount — if African-Americans cannot vote, they are not truly citizens. And, on a more visceral level, African-Americans were being murdered with impunity, the killers knowing that white sheriffs and judges would never bring them to justice.

The dealmaker Johnson urges patience, but King has run out. He takes his mantra (“Negotiate, demonstrate, resist”) to Selma, where he organizes plans for a 50-mile march to Wallace’s doorstep in Montgomery. Naturally Wallace’s men and the racist local sheriff will fight to stop the march, which, on some level, King wants to provoke. What will pressure Johnson to act is not a peaceful demonstration, but images of demonstrators being arrested and beaten on live national television.

DuVernay and first-time screenwriter Paul Webb show us these events as they unfold, taking us from King’s stirring speeches at the pulpit to strategy sessions down in the church basement. David Oyelowo’s performance as King is, of course, incredible, but not just because he so fully embodies the thundering public King that we all know.

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We also see the private King, wrestling with his doubts, planning his next moves, weighing the public good of what he’s doing against the private toll on his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and family. And what’s striking is that this doesn’t feel like two sides of the man — Oyelowo’s performance exists on a single continuum, convincing us that the man inspiring millions is the same man we saw grieving alone just a few minutes before. He’s the man we knew, and never knew.

DuVernay shot much of “Selma” in Georgia and Alabama, including the infamous clash between police and protesters on the actual Edmund Pettus Bridge where it happened. As thugs beat women with axe handles wrapped in barbed wire, or mounted police crack a whip at a fleeing protester, the horror is wreathed in a ghostly white smoke. It’s as if the images are already starting to fade over time, and “Selma” does a heroic job in bringing them back, making them fresh and immediate and horrible again.

“Selma” makes all of what King and his followers did a half-century ago suddenly feel relevant and immediate again, especially as we live in a new era of racial and cultural unrest. The film shows us that it’s not enough to think the right thoughts or say the right words, patiently standing on the sidelines and waiting for change to happen. We must build the path best we can, rock by rock.

 

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