There’s not a single word that comes out of the mouth of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma — yes, even given that the film had to paraphrase his speeches thanks to a copyright issue — that doesn’t still apply today, half a damn century later. This is the beauty, and the tragedy, of Ava DuVernay’s magnificent film. The images it horrifies us with — peaceful protesters whipped in the street by policemen — and inspires us with — peaceful protesters continuing to protest in the face of outrageous offense — are almost identical, in many significant ways, to images we’ve seen on television in recent months, from Ferguson, Missouri, and (just as the film was about to open in the U.S.) New York City.
How is this possible? How has so little, seemingly, changed in 50 years? DuVernay and her screenwriter, Paul Webb, cannot possibly have anticipated their film being so very pertinent, except in the general sense of the palpable lack of enough progress that many black Americans could have told you about, but they made a film anyway that is no stuffy schoolroom lesson but a vital, alive movie with the most profound sense of immediacy I think I’ve ever felt in a historical story. There’s a smart elegance in how the film focuses not on the big sweep of King’s life but on just one small moment in time: the voting-rights protest in Selma, Alabama, in a South where absurd barriers were thrown up at black people who attempted to register to vote. And that elegance is there, too, in ways that disgust and enrage as DuVernay makes very personal the indignities and the violence American citizens faced in their quest to claim the rights they were supposedly due under the Constitution. In one early scene, a woman (Oprah Winfrey: The Butler, The Princess and the Frog) is treated with appalling contempt as she fills out a voter registration card. The centerpiece horror of the film, the vicious attack by police on protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, is presented not with journalistic distance, like news footage shot from outside the fray, but like something out of a war movie, putting us right inside the brutal battle.
It is impossible not to be moved to tears of terror by it… and then to tears of shame, at how cruel, petty, and narrowminded people can be (like the pinch-faced white people looking upon that protest by their fellow Americans with suspicion and disdain).
There’s cosy intimacy here, too, in how DuVernay presents the practical planning and strategic considerations a protest like Selma required; this was a cannily planned moment geared to attain maximum publicity, not a spontaneous group outburst, and it was carefully crafted among a tight-knit group of King’s friends and associates. And then there’s the unexpected domesticity! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a similar movie a Nobel Prize-winning figure of immense stature such as King (David Oyelowo: Interstellar, Jack Reacher) taking out the garbage, a moment that gives us a peek into his home life with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo: The Purge: Anarchy, Pride and Glory). It also serves to put moments like threatening phone calls and harassment from the FBI — which spied on King in attempts to discredit him — on the same sort of footing: these were things as “normal” and as regular as putting the trash out.
For all that much of what is depicted in Selma enraged and disgusted me, this is a film so engaging and so vibrant that I could have watched it forever. I just wish part of that didn’t arise from how relevant it still is to what’s going on today.