If I expected it to be comfortable to watch and contemplate and evaluate Ava DuVernay’s artistic triumph as director and un-credited screenwriter of Selma, then I devalued the deeply nuanced—and brave—realization of this unexpectedly brooding and appropriately disturbing movie.
With imaginative, nimble performers who become, rather than play the principals; with sweeping camera angles that send tragedy into the air as if to disturb heaven; with long scenes of painful dialogue that unapologetically reveal the uncertain, terrorized inner lives of black Americans—the Edmund Pettus Bridge becomes a painful link between King’s work then and America’s unresolved racial burden today.
This is not, like so many previous efforts, notably the almost-cartoonish King television mini-series of 1978—in which the heavy-shouldered and avuncular Paul Winfield played the preacher with a big grin under a fedora—a linear depiction of the MLK saga. Winfield was physically larger than MLK; David Oyelowo, the intensive British actor is smaller and narrow-waisted. Yet he almost implodes with the King’s throbbing amalgam of oratorical power and self-contempt.
Selma does not trek, like a cadenced death march, from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma to Memphis, across a series of clichéd incidents and theatrical narratives painted conveniently onto the canvas of history. Rather, it dwells in the deep well of Martin King’s soul: a place of murky introspection, vast guilt, and an uncanny political intuition. This is because this motion picture is written in black ink and does not pander to white revisionism.
Ava DuVernay has too much respect for history—too much concern for the present—to send up a buffet of two-dimensional clips. She understands that the thirteen years of King’s movement were a series of accidents and rivalries and blind intersections and shaky alliances and dead children and an Atlanta pastor who was real, admired, reviled, flawed, and trapped by the grim circumstances of his fate.
Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge was not an overpass he crossed by himself but it was a bridge for him between two dark places: his mission and his soul. The screenplay, written on the pages of profound black anguish, does not seek to satisfy anybody’s gilded image of the civil rights story.
It does not mention or forecast the first African American president. It doesn’t act like America was ready for anything but reminds us that we were dragged into a tentative racial conciliation because television burst into our homes with the ugly truth of white supremacy and the righteous howl of simmering black indignation.
Selma is not so much about enacted bills as it is about shattered bones; more about betrayals than reliabilities. It has the boldness to be the script of the most unscripted revolution in American history.
It does not service the white American hagiography that has converted Martin Luther King Jr. from a human person into a holiday ritual. It lacks any conceit promoting the fiction that King and his colleagues were on a journey that they could actually discern.
It is simply the diary of hate and blood from which emerged a tentative burst of hope that is today blurred dangerously by Ferguson and Staten Island and the urban racial battle between police officers and black men.
David Oyelowo does not glorify his character; the real King hardly thought of himself as glorious. His short and brutal life of 39 years, which ended exactly the way he knew it would, was more or less begrudged to him. He captures King’s unique and stirring manner of emphasizing first consonants and even his inability not to be preachy around the kitchen table or while languishing in an Alabama jail cell.
Selma is a noble motion picture that dignifies the strident ambiguities of a man and a movement. It valiantly understands that the struggle for human dignity in America has never been simply black or white.
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