Selma is like the star pupil of award-bait historical dramas: accomplished, proper, and important, but just a tad too straight-laced.
The movie is essentially a chronicle of the Martin Luther King Jr-led campaign of civil disobedience, culminating in the Selma-Montgomery marches of 1965, calling on the government to pass legislation banning obstruction of voter registration for African Americans, which was then a widespread practice in the South.
Magisterial and full of gravitas, this film soars on the performance, in particular, of English actor David Oyelowo, whose portrayal of King is nothing short of astounding. Oyelowo delivers King’s speeches with an oratorical fire that comes about as close to the real thing as can be reasonably expected of a dramatization. If the film is to be watched for one reason, it would be to watch Oyelowo deliver those speeches.
The film abounds with a sense of historical weight, of the crushing racism experienced by blacks in the Deep South. The scenes in which the initial march is brutally beaten back by Alabama state troopers, who almost seem to relish the violence that they are visiting upon peaceful protesters with their billy clubs, are terrible to watch, but perhaps the most chilling were the civilian white audience who stand at the police barricades at the other end of Edmund Pettus bridge near the end of the film, waving Confederate flags, their faces registering their almost animalistic anticipation of the carnage they expect will follow. They represent the unvarnished banality of evil.
The film takes pains to portray King as a conflicted leader, aghast at the violence that befalls his supporters, and uncertain if his protracted campaign of civil disobedience should continue if it will only mean more deaths, but determined to see his cause through to the end. References to King’s possible infidelity, as well as the horrific letters sent to him by the FBI as a form of psychological warfare, are passing but present, but the film never really strays far in that direction. Selma is a film firmly in the mainstream of historical discourse, even if it does unfairly portray Lyndon B Johnson as a politically-minded schemer who initially lacks the moral fortitude to give King what he wants. But LBJ’s filmic analogue comports himself well in his takedown of the unctuous but supercilious Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (played with a perfect Southern drawl by Tim Roth, who is British – somewhat ironically, the three strongest performances of the film are all from British actors, including Tom Wilkinson, who plays LBJ. ).
The film is, above all, correct. While it may not get all the historical details right, in spirit it is very much in the tradition of the straight-laced historical drama that one watches on C-Span or the History Channel – non-transgressive in the way it treats the gist of the historical narrative. There is no room for revisionism here. The main characters are also all treated in a somewhat larger-than-life fashion, more like historical icons than people, motivated by causes more than by the human heart, and disconcertingly aware of their own importance in history. The presence of Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper seals the deal, really: here is a film that by dint of Winfrey’s involvement is rendered into must-watch material for her millions of loyal followers – a rather well-circumscribed demographic that one would not usually associate with having an appreciation for experimental cinema.
But I suppose America must have its narrative-fortifying films, its edutainment disguised as drama, to remind latter generations of the struggles and sacrifice of their forefathers, and of the fact that the struggle for racial equality is far from over.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 FBI letters