Ava DuVernay’s exceptional film “Selma” opens on a close-up of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. — played with charisma and humanism by British-born actor David Oyelowo — as he arranges his tie, hours prior to his 1964 acceptance of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. In his face, we see pain and power, strength and weakness. Cut. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) enters the frame. They bicker over his neckwear, as she procures an ascot. King doesn’t feel comfortable decked in such gaudy trappings. Coretta insists. King submits. In this brief exchange, director Ava DuVernay sets the stage for one of this year’s strongest cinematic endeavors: “Selma,” a film which succeeds at being both a warts-and-all portrait of the man who stood up to a broken system and a meticulous and loving landscape of the faces that refused to let him stand alone.
After King accepts his award in Oslo, DuVernay shifts the focus stateside. Immersed in a political war of wits with then-president Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King lobbies for voting reform in the corrupt and violence-wracked south. To King, the right to vote is essential, and he requests that its vitality be reflected in Johnson’s domestic platform. Johnson feels otherwise. Overly concerned with his war on poverty, Johnson prefers to place electoral reform on the back burner. Conflict ensues, and when Johnson fails to see the merit of King’s rhetoric, King chooses to take his impassioned plea to the streets, spearheading a march from the eponymous Selma, a city rife with disenfranchisement, to Montgomery, Alabama. In doing so, King, joined by legions of civil rights champions, inspires a movement.
If you took history in high school, the rest may seem pretty familiar, but with DuVernay at the helm, this age-old tale finds new life due, in no small part, to her intimate and wholeheartedly personal approach to the source material. Pushing closer than many would dare (although I have not seen any of her previous work, close-ups appear to be her M.O.), DuVernay elicits gut-wrenching compassion. When the billy clubs start falling like rain, each crack of the bat on bone reverberates, hurting something awful (sound editor Greg Hedgepath is truly in fine form). Each sequence, including a viciously choreographed bombing of a southern church, tears through you like shrapnel, leaving your insides shredded and your jaw unhinged.
Why? Because DuVernay refuses to distance herself from her subjects; DuVernay wants us to feel for every single character, from the Doctor himself to an unsuspecting Sunday school attendee, tragically oblivious to what lies beyond the horizon. DuVernay knows how to build audience identification, and she also knows how to make it burn when everything comes crashing down. Consequently, in “Selma,” we get one of the most nuanced and bewitching portraits of King to date. Here is a man who rises above the rest but still manages to fall every now and again. From blunders to bouquets, DuVernay lays King bare for all to see, and the outcome is simply divine.
Yet DuVernay does not fixate on King as one might be apt to do in what has been branded, by many, as a King biopic. Still too close to it all to retract her lens, DuVernay gives similarly devoted consideration to King’s cohorts. “Selma” is a movie of supporting characters, and boy does DuVernay let them bask in the spotlight. Keith Stanfield, a revelation in last year’s little-seen but much-loved “Short Term 12,” does astonishing work here as the young Jimmie Lee Jackson. Although I hate to give anything away, Stanfield’s turn is heartbreaking, shaking with the passion of King’s call to arms. In the end, this attention to detail reveals itself to be wholly critical to the film’s articulate and, though it pains me to say it, timely message. DuVernay spells it on the faces of the film’s beleaguered heroes and shouts it for all to hear. As true then as it is now: Divided we stand, united we fall.
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.