There is a prevailing wisdom in Hollywood that any film centred on the exploits of important historical figures is likely to attract significant awards-season buzz. If the figure represents triumph over oppression — a theme favoured by most of us, to be fair — then that film and its cast will feature heavily in the conversation come February.
In truth, this narrative is not especially accurate and for every Schindler’s List there is a Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. That said, however, the snubbing of Selma in every major category, save Best Picture, at the upcoming Academy Awards is puzzling. Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama is far from flawless yet, by the same measure, it deserves more than a clearly tokenistic nod at the establishment’s annual congratulatory jamboree.
Selma’s greatest strength rests in its emotional power. Underplayed and sensible enough to allow the subject matter to speak for it, this is, nonetheless, a handsome portrait of a bleak time which still arouses horrified awe. It tugs at the corners of civilisation’s guilt, going for the wells of heartfelt solidarity we instinctively feel with the downtrodden. If exploitative is an inappropriate term to attach here, resonant is not.
DuVernay finds her noble avatar in the increasingly adaptable form of David Oyelowo. As Martin Luther King he draws humanity, both real and inspiring, from a character most will only ever know by his deeds. This preacher-activist’s non-violent approach to demanding fairness made him no less a despised individual in the sneering, sweat-soaked, racist South, but Oyelowo adds a dash of cold-eyed political manoeuvring to King’s aspirations.
What King wants, of course, is startlingly simple. It’s 1965 and, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the previous year, life for the black citizens of Dixie is plagued by prejudice. Voting appears a largely impossible dream thanks to the deep-rooted institutional bigotry rampant throughout the regional bureaucracy. In the opening minutes, Annie Lee Cooper’s (Oprah Winfrey, also serving as a producer) attempt to register is stymied by an arbitrary spot test; later, a strategic discussion by King and friends offers up a particularly lucid précis of the wide ranging problems that stem from being kept off the rolls. In return for maintaining his position as the civilised face of equal rights, King requires federal intervention on the issue from President Lyndon B. Johnson, a purely political animal played with coarse, stooping pugnacity by Tom Wilkinson.
King and the other commanders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — including James Bevel (Common), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) — settle on Selma, Alabama, as the next staging post in their protest campaign. Infested with hatred and overseen by an especially inelegant sheriff, it possesses all the elements required to make a statement. By hinting at an edge of publicity-sniffing expedience in the crusaders’ actions, DuVernay, bravely, goes beyond the quasi-sainthood bestowed on King in the years since his assassination.
In its meaty middle, Selma does much to impress and appal, capturing, without cynicism, the genuine struggles of black Americans to enjoy full citizenship and the determination of certain whites, whether by guile or by savagery, to keep them from these. At the head of the latter camp is Tim Roth. He has tremendous fun portraying Governor George Wallace, one of history’s leading morons, who spends most of the picture burbling racial slurs and using vile phrases like ‘cradle of the Confederacy’ with no small amount of pride. Incredibly, this is Wallace coloured as an actual person and not the arch villain one would expect to behave in so despicable a manner.
Ranged against him is an army of peace, seeking only its basic humanity and thus, when the hammer falls, when the governor and his network of good ole boys decide that they have had enough of this uppity agitation, their reaction will chill the blood. The director moulds into a horrifying spectacle those seminal events of Bloody Sunday, March 1965, when state troopers and a local posse beat down, with impunity, silent marchers on the titular city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The watching press stared in disbelief that day and DuVernay promptly steps into the swirling haze of an all-out assault, civilians falling under the batons of authorities sworn to protect them. The camera lingers on a mounted vigilante riding down a fleeing woman; it does not recoil as he bowls her over with a bull whip. This vision is barely removed from another century, a useful reminder that there existed only the smallest shafts of light between the sweltering brutality of the plantation and the era of Jim Crow.
What tumbles from these terrible snapshots is not anger, but sadness, a sense of regret that man may do unto himself such ills. Oyelowo personifies dignity — a word used more than once — in the face of every provocation, turning in a gripping, multifaceted, often unreadable performance, as ripe with wit, realism and gravitas as it is with the kind of soaring, heaven-sent rhetorical skills that occur only once in a generation. However reined in he may be, Oyelowo’s mature depiction is career-defining and plainly Oscar-worthy.
The film missteps from time to time, dragging King’s apparently fraught, if hugely undercooked, domestic situation into view. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), ultimately becomes a nagging distraction, a rather unjust fate for a woman who dedicated so much of her life to gilding this movement’s legacy. Ironically, for all the subversion of King as a blank and prematurely absent icon, he remains somewhat unknowable by the end; the workings of his mind, the depths of his potential, are kept hidden. Perhaps a running time of two hours is simply insufficient to look beneath the visage of this towering presence.
Selma will not thrill, that is not its purpose. It goes deeper than that, the beautiful simplicity of its story imbuing those underlying ideals with profound significance. In the aftermath of Ferguson, Paris and every other despicable instance of rampant intolerance, even in this age of Obama, no generation should forget that there is much work yet to be done.