US (2014) Dir. Ava DuVernay
Films based on historical events will always court a curious eye in terms of their accuracy which is open to dramatic and artistic licence dependant on what the director’s criteria is for telling the story at hand. This account of Martin Luther King’s struggle to secure the right to vote for black people in 1960’s America is said to be subject to such liberties but the lead performance is compelling enough to forgive this.
Director Ava DuVernay wastes little time in setting the scene for King’s campaign with a triumvirate of juxtaposed scenarios; first King (David Oyelowo) is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 then we jump back a year to when a group of young black girls are killed in a bombing at a church, then we return to the present day when a black citizen of Selma, Alabama, Anna Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), is denied her registration to vote by a smarmy white desk clerk.
From hereon in the story focuses on King doing battle with the overwhelming authority of Selma to right the injustice perpetrated against the black residents of the town. In this telling of the tale King seeks legislation from President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to allow unopposed voting rights for black people in Selma. Johnson says that blacks are free to vote but he has bigger issue to deal with, leaving King to lead the charge in Selma.
This final plot point is one of the more contentious in terms of the film’s manipulation of the facts. It’s been well documented that Johnson was not the steadfast obstructive force he is presented as here, rather he and King had a mutually respectful and close working relationship. Johnson was also keen to push forward with John F. Kennedy’s civil Rights Act and took immediate action after the Selma matches to begin debating the Voting Rights Bill with the US Senate.
Quite why Johnson’s character was distorted in such an inaccurate way remains baffling when the truth is a matter if public record but DuVernay has defended this by saying she is a storyteller and not a documentary maker. But it posits Johnson as a major dramatic hurdle for King’s campaign, and he is by far no the worst antagonist depicted here, so this is something we are forced to grin and bear.
The biggest cause of King’s headaches and the catalyst for these troubles is Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) a man who supposedly wasn’t racist but was a “populist” in that he blatantly supported the white majority. He is backed by the openly discriminate Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), your typical redneck thug whose violent actions at a peaceful sit in at the town hall started the hostilities.
A peaceful protest march by lead locals lead to some fatalities at the hands of the police to which King’s response was to stage a larger march from Selma to Alabama’s state capital of Montgomery which he opted not to attend to be with his wife Corretta (Carmen Ejogo) and their kids. This also ended in violence but this time was filmed and broadcast on live TV for the whole country to see, gathering nationwide support for their cause. A second march was organised which saw people of all races, faith and colours join in to show their unity. But the troubles persisted.
With footage of so many of these awful events available to DuVernay the authenticity of the scenes is the one thing that can’t be accused of being of falsified for the sake of this film. They are dutifully recreated and cut as deep as they must have back in 1965, the unbridled horror being not easy to forget. It is not difficult under these circumstances to side with the black people, although DuVernay does a good job in ensuring our support from the get go.
Then again just the mere thought of these injustices actually happening in real life is upsetting enough more so today in these more enlightened times, but unfortunately such atrocities need to happen to instigate change. That would explain why the film’s title is not linked directly MLK or a biopic of his life, instead recognising the sacrifices and efforts of everyone involved in the Selma marches.
At the risk of being overly cynical there is a slight sense that DuVernay was deliberately and persistently pushing our buttons with this film, especially in the wake of the success of 12 Years A Slave, resulting in something which feels rather clinical in its narrative despite the deep emotions it provokes. It’s a very well made film and the era has been effectively recreated but there are times where it feels a “by the numbers” production.
Even if this film isn’t directly about MLK David Oyelowo’s performance is the foundation around which this is built. Cruelly ignored by both the Oscars and BAFTA, Oyelowo is able to compensate for any cavils and shortcomings with a commanding essaying of King, from his quiet but forceful leadership and diplomatic skills to his inspiring public speeches. Even with the handicap of King’s famous speeches being out of DuVernay’s reaches, Oyewolo makes the substitute words from writer Paul Webb sound equally as convincing and uplifting.
Solid support comes from the likes of Tim Roth as the loathsome George Wallace, Carmen Ejogo as King’s grace under pressure wife Corretta and even Oprah Winfrey who also doubles as the film’s producer. Tom Wilkinson does his best with his role as President Johnson but knowing the changes made to it makes it hard to truly discern his effectiveness.
Well made, superbly acted and deeply provocative Selma is recommended viewing to see how far race relations have come in fifty years, working well as a slightly askew but still potently sobering depiction of the plight of black America.