Some days, when I can’t help but turn on the news and bathe in the day’s current tragedy or injustice, I feel as if we’re running over the same ground. Whether it’s racial inequality or the senseless desecration of a human life, we’re regurgitating the same bullshit that’s crippled our society for hundreds of years. To quote True Detective’s Rusty Cohle, “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again,” and that’s how I view our society and its struggles with equality. No matter how many times liberation movements spring up, we trample equity with ease. History is painful, but from it emanates solutions we brazenly forget. Maybe there’s too much time between the past and present to register the necessary course of action, or maybe our history is too horrific for us to peer at, but wonderful and measured films like Ava DuVernay’s Selma can help us shorten the gap between past and present, problem and solution.
Vividly recounting the battle for equal voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Selma plants us in the middle of a movement destined to send waves through the nation. Invited by a voting group from the titular, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) arrives in Alabama with an irrevocable resolve. After stalled conversations with Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King sees Selma as the perfect breeding ground for change. Through impassioned speeches and peaceful marches, King ignites a transparent attack against the voting obstacles placed in front of African-American citizens. Resistance ultimately leads to unthinkable acts of violence and tragedy, forcing a great deal of pressure on King and the movement’s other leaders. One false move could not only lose the movement, but also jeopardize the lives of many people. Outside of Alabama’s government forces (the governor, police, etc.), King faced mounting intrusion from the FBI, who was viciously attacking his character through various channels and means. King is a man at odds, but the faction he finds himself in, marches triumphantly forward.
The tension bubbling in Selma is palpable. Even though we know how it all ends, there are moments where the immediacy of the events erase our grasp on history. We’re not learning about the marches; we’re living them. DuVernay’s direction in scenes where protestors collide with a disagreeable police force is harrowing and damaging. Exploding smoke bombs and tearful screams rip through us, as cops bludgeon innocent people without hesitation or recoil. The sound of a baton cracking against a human skull is painfully poignant. The carnage DuVernay stages isn’t exploitative; it’s a sobering reminder of the past and present. DuVernay masterfully blends kinetic dramatization and historical recreation, generating a film experience that’s not only insightful, but one that immerses us in the moment. In spite of King’s involvement with the Selma movement, DuVernay doesn’t focus solely on King’s strength as a leader. In many ways he is a vessel of exploration. Specifically, DuVernay carves out the faces in the crowd, providing a spotlight for all the names history books leave in the margins. The hope DuVernay excavates from these people is the perfect balancing point to the human destruction.
Admittedly, Selma isn’t a moment for moment reconstruction of the marches. But for those who are taking aim at the film’s legitimacy and accuracy, especially those with an overzealous affection for Lyndon B. Johnson, you’re missing the point. Selma’s focused on transporting us to a place in time that’s as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Facts are important, but capturing the essence is the operative goal. And capturing the essence of King is exactly what David Oyelowo does. His performance is mercurial, accentuating King’s divine traits with egregious faults. And when Oyelowo delivers King’s sermons, some of which were rewritten by DuVernay due to licensing issues, the prophetic and poetic words bellow in our souls. Few performances from the past year were as stirring and humanistic as Oyelowo’s. On the strong, immovable shoulders of Oyelowo, as well as the clear focus of DuVernay behind the camera, Selma is a rousing example of what we’ve achieved over the course of time. But Selma isn’t simply about the past. No. It defines the expectations for our future because time can’t be a flat circle anymore.