Selma is the story designed to provide an almost microcosmic moment of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) converge strategically on Selma, Alabama to begin a socially salient series of marches, most notably those from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Director Ava DuVernay, the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance for her Middle of Nowhere in 2012, focuses her lens on capturing this particular moment of the Civil Rights Movement as it really was.
Her camera tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma as raw as it was, eschewing the ephemerality of modern day activism and devoting her attention to capturing the violence, tensions within the Movement, and desire to self-determine that the Movement brought to the eyes of the American people.
In many ways, her camera casts, in a contemporary and historiographical frame, the status of the Civil Rights Movement as it was in 1960s while placing in contradistinction this vignette of a seemingly endless struggle with the current status of affairs.
The film begins with King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and ends with LBJ’s proposal to draft the Voting Rights Act (although we never actually see him do it), a major section of which was recently repealed in a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court. It should not be forgotten that the early Civil Rights Movement was initiated by women in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the movement “made” King.
Selma, winding around King’s involvement with the movement, is far from a traditional biopic. With every monologue underlined by myriad platitudinous piano sonatas, the story told is that of the Movement, with an importance on action, as opposed to who is doing it. The story is told through the eyes of King; central figures to the Movement such as Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), John Lewis (Stephan James), James Forman (Trai Byers), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce, The Wire) played roles confined to the periphery.
This limits the audience to hearing not what was being said, but what was being done by whom (the marching, the violence, carried out by a mass of protesters, with key leaders standing to the side), effectively limiting the historical nuance that any modern history book would grant the reader, even in lay terms. Common and Oprah also made appearances.
I was especially caught by the mixing of historically potent moments in American history as dripping with the gloss of the entertainment industry. Throughout the film, the logs of the FBI as they tracked King appear across the screen, typesetting the obvious, serve to add a noir aspect to the film in that even the most intimate details of the lives of King and his family are being followed by both FBI and audience, and yet neither group truly comes away “knowing” King (or any other figure in the film for that matter). This reinforces the excitement of Hollywood, as well as distances us from King as narrator, and predetermines audience as observer.
Furthermore, with so much great music coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, how does it make sense that Common’s “Glory,” a dry, feel-good rap with choral-gospel overtones featuring John Legend (it sounds like every song on every album I’ve heard of Legend’s), wins the Globe for Best Original Song? I appreciate the film’s associations with the very contemporary style of Common’s music, but the music of the 1960s was so potent in terms of the movement that, in my book, a song made in the 21st century is precluded from hitting the mark, especially when the director opts to use footage from one of the marches to capture the movement’s true essence.
The magic of this film lies in its tactfulness in placing a contemporary frame around a profound series of historical events, relating the 1960s to the 2010s.