Movies are at their most powerful when they have their way with us, invading our consciousness in a way that only movies can. To insist that people experience films (or any other art) only on the basis that it is educational and socially important, sours the experience and sometimes limits the visceral, unmitigated power of movies. And when people treat a movie as a sacrosanct historical document, the act of going to see it can turn, quite unexpectedly, into a passive, self-serving political statement. “You have to see American Sniper because it’s a tribute to the troops.” “I liked The Help, therefore I am not a racist.” It can feel like any criticism of such films makes you somehow un-patriotic, or worse yet, un-American (a quality that would certainly not endear you to the likes of American Sniper’s hero). However, I will resist the urge to badger you and demand that you see Selma, a film that I absolutely loved, on the basis of its historical or social importance. (Although, it is indeed important in both of those aspects, among many others.) Undoubtedly, Selma will make its way into American History classrooms across the country in the coming years, but for regular movie-going people, it can still be treated as a movie, not just a corrective historical diorama. These two things can be equally important, making it difficult to separate the historical importance of the film from the art of the film. But I will attempt to do that anyway.
Selma pulls you into its world in an emotionally direct way. Scenes of real injustice and tragedy, such as the 1963 bombing of a black church in Alabama (which left four girls dead) are shocking, disturbing, heartbreaking, and provide the necessary jolt of anger and urgency that, I think, is representative of the 1960s and the way people really did feel. The writer-director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, knows how to ratchet up the right amount of empathy from the audience without milking us. In the hands of the wrong director, Selma would be content in its moral certitude. In DuVernay’s hands, Selma is urgent and bold and even hopeful. It’s beautifully made without seeming too careful.
DuVernay has received a lot of flack for her alleged twisting of historical facts, namely a mischaracterization of President Lyndon Johnson. DuVernay tacitly owned up to this accusation by playing the “I’m-an-artist-I-don’t have-to-be-historically-accurate” card. But, allow me to take a moment and list every historical film I can think of in the next 30 seconds that has been accused of deliberately twisting facts: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Paul Berg’s Lone Survivor, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the HBO mini-series John Adams, Disney’s Pocahontas, Oliver Stone’s JFK, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and all those other Jesus films where Jesus is played by a pasty-white British guy—he may as well be offering the Disciples some tea and crumpets—and every big-studio movie about the Roman Empire in which the actors brandished English accents. So what’s the answer? Do we rail against filmmakers who don’t adhere to, as Dickens put it in Hard Times, “the facts; just the facts”? Or do we realize that it’s not Hollywood’s job to be 100% accurate in historical films?
The answer lies somewhere in-between. There is no formula to nail down how to respond to these movies when they ignore or manipulate facts for their own purposes. Fiction does not have to be dishonest. Good fiction speaks truth in the most invented moments. And if we approach historical films in this way, I think we’ll be better served by the filmmakers who are doing honest work even when that work wouldn’t necessarily fly as gospel truth. (Isn’t it our responsibility to know the facts anyway?) In Selma, a movie that gets so much of the tone of the civil rights movement right, I’m not all that worried about the portrayal of LBJ (played in the film by Tom Wilkinson, who’s very good as usual). Johnson doesn’t come off that badly. DuVernay depicts him as a shrewd politician who knew that racial equality was morally right, even though he didn’t always want to deal with it or with Martin Luther King’s constant insisting for swift and sweeping federal action.
Here’s an interesting fact: Selma is the only piece of narrative film that’s ever been made directly about Martin Luther King. Is that surprising? People are up in arms over the lack of Oscar nominations for Selma, but perhaps we should be more concerned that it took this long to get a movie about Martin Luther King made in the first place.
And it’s a knockout of a movie. The performance of David Oyelowo as King is surely one of the best performances of the last year. Oyelowo’s power on screen carries Selma, and would have saved it even if it had been a total disaster. The way he spins a phrase of dialogue or belts out a compelling speech—many of which could be rendered cheesy or ineffectual if uttered by the wrong actor—is a marvelous thing to behold. Oyelowo has such conviction, such strength, that one feels captivated by him. He makes it clear how the movement needed a man like King, who may have been arrogant and flawed, but who possessed a sure-footed vision for progress and an unwavering belief in his own dignity.
Duvernay doesn’t shy away from King’s infidelities and their effect on his wife, Coretta Scott King. (She’s played by Carmen Ejogo, who gives an equally strong performance.) And then there’s Oprah, who co-produced Selma and who appears in a supporting role as Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper. The movie opens with Cooper bravely walking into the Selma courthouse and applying for a voter registration card. The sleazy government flunky behind the desk denies Cooper her registration after she fails to name all 67 judges in Alabama. (Cooper does manage to produce the number, as well as recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory; but this isn’t enough to satisfy Selma’s rigid, racist policies.) I have to wonder if Oprah doesn’t enjoy playing frumpy poor women since she’s so wealthy herself. (I’m reminded of Marie Antoinette, who thought the poor were so enchanting that she pretended to be a rural housewife, to the point that she had a little cottage built and a field to “work in.” It’s sort of like having your very own working-class-themed amusement park.) But Oprah is very good, and she gets some moments of triumph, like when she stands her ground amidst the hostile insults of a redneck police officer. And God bless her for helping to get this movie made.
Finally, regarding the Oscar controversy: Selma was nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, but none of the performances were nominated. David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo deserved to be recognized by the Academy for their work. Nobody can change that now, but just thinking about their fine portrayals of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King makes me happy that this movie exists and hopeful about future projects for these two performers and for their director. Every year the Oscars manage to ignore good people and good movies (like The Immigrant, which got nothing). Julianne Moore still doesn’t have an Oscar. (Although that will hopefully change this year.) And let’s remember that Forrest Gump once won the Oscar for Best Picture. If that’s not a travesty, I don’t know what is.
Selma was photographed by Bradford Young; music by Jason Moran; with: Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Wendell Pierce, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Lorraine Tousaint, Colman Domingo, Keith Stanfield, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Trai Byers, Stephan James, Omar Dorsey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Ledisi Young, and Jeremy Strong.