'Selma': The Struggle for Civil Rights, Done Right

Ava DuVernay's film follows historical events in a moving and powerful way, while also exposing the political and ideological mechanisms that underlay the U.S. civil rights movement.

Selma Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by Paul Webb; with David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Andre Holland, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Wendell Pierce, Dylan Baker, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr., Oprah Winfrey

I was in my last year of high school when the events depicted in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” began, and I closely followed the American struggle for civil rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Perhaps because I had always liked American movies, I was also interested in American politics, society and culture, and I found what was happening between black and white Americans at the time especially compelling and moving.

There may have been other reasons for my fascination, reasons having to do with the gradual awakening of my political awareness, which in those years – shortly before the 1967 Six-Day War – focused more on what was happening outside Israel than inside it. We did not have television yet, and so I followed the events in the United States, including the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 – I still remember how shocked I was to hear about it from my parents when I returned home after going out on a Friday night – through local newspapers, movie-theater newsreels and, especially, Time Magazine, to which my parents had a subscription (I remember reading stories about current events in America as soon as I had finished checking out what the magazine’s movie critic had to say that week).

I’ve taken this little stroll down memory lane in order to explain why almost any film about this period in America history moves me; and if (as infrequently happens) the film is a good one – and “Selma” is a good film – I am moved to an extreme.

I was pleasantly surprised by DuVernay’s movie, having never heard of the director before. Most films about the civil rights struggle, whether in the United States or South Africa, tell interesting, perhaps even fascinating, stories; as movies, however, they tend to be no more than proper, relying on didactic and conventional formulas. “Selma” does more than that.

The movie begins in 1964, after Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) wins the Nobel Peace Prize. It opens with a good scene in which King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), discuss whether his elegant attire for the prize ceremony might not send the wrong message to his followers.

Earlier that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) managed to get a law prohibiting segregation through Congress, but the African-Americans living in the South still had trouble fulfilling their right to vote because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of white government bureaucrats. King wants to persuade Johnson to pass another law that will make it illegal to place obstacles such as tests before blacks who want to vote; Johnson, however, is reluctant.

Much of the movie’s power comes from the scenes in which King and Johnson argue about the right way to continue the civil rights struggle. These scenes are well-written – and they do not paint Johnson as a big civil-rights proponent, the way history sometimes has. The two British actors playing King and Johnson do fine work. King faces the president without backing down; the latter, fearing for his public image (already tarnished by the escalating Vietnam War), tries to convince King to abandon his plan of leading the people of Selma, Alabama, on a march to the state capital of Montgomery.

Johnson is sure that the march, which will be covered by television and the press, will end in violence orchestrated by the racist Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Most of “Selma” follows King’s pursuit of his plan, to which even some of his fellow activists are opposed.

The movie’s high points are the three marches King organizes; the first two indeed end in terrible violence. What gives “Selma” its depth and power, however, is that the story does not simply and directly follow a plan, the struggle to carry it out, and its eventual implementation – a choice that would have made it a rather traditional picture. Instead, DuVernay uses the story of the march as the basis for a kind of human and historical mosaic that moves between the intimate and the epic. (There is a striking cinematic expressivity to the scenes in which the people of Selma, at first alone and then surrounded by supporters of all religions and colors from throughout the United States, try to cross the bridge leading out of Selma and run into a violent police force that assaults them with clubs and gas.) In this way, DuVernay is able to follow historical events while also exposing the political and ideological mechanisms that underlie them.

In other words, “Selma” is not just a chronicle of historical developments; it aims to do more than just involve us in King’s fight and move us as it unfolds. The film is very frequently moving, but it has higher, more intelligent goals than that.

The result is one of the best movies ever made about an episode in America’s history and highlighting its political dimensions. The political emphasis does not detract from the film’s ability to reveal the story’s human sides: King, Johnson, Wallace and other historic figures are portrayed in a complex, complete way, even when they make only brief appearances (as do Dylan Baker in the role of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson, who ultimately allowed the march to take place). Moreover, there are some well-written moments hinting at the tension between King and his wife; note, for example, the excellent scene in which Coretta asks King whether he loves her, and he says yes – and then hesitates when she asks whether he also loves one of the other women working by his side.

Above all, DuVernay knows that the end of the struggle “Selma” depicts, however thrilling (and made more thrilling in the movie by her delicate use of archive footage from the real-life march), does not indicate a victory.

King himself, after all, was murdered in 1967, and then we have everything that has happened in America only recently, while the movie was in production. But this knowledge only makes “Selma” more powerful, allowing it to do what any movie about a historical episode must do if it aims to be significant – show us not just what happened, but what is still happening.

DuVernay made her movie on a small budget, and it took her a long time to get the project going and to convince others that she was up to the task (it couldn’t have hurt to have help in producing from Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey, who also makes a small appearance). The result, as I have said here, deserves to be admired.