By Gus Edelen-O’Brien
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
“Selma”, a film by Ava DuVernay, is about Martin Luther King Jr, without simply being solely about King’s accomplishments. King was a great man, but this films looks past this and peels him like an onion, exposing his weaknesses, and in doing so, it exposes his strengths.
Near the beginning, a scene fades to three girls and a boy walking down the stairs of a church, talking about hair and makeup. You know what’s coming because you’ve learned about this before. You know you can’t stop it, and it makes it all the more horrifying when the church blows up and the little girls go flying into the rubble.
David Oyelowo plays King as a man who lives in a fog, and the cinematography follows suit, making the space around King stretched and blurred as if the world around King is some horrific dream. Oyelowo speaks with a vigour and passion in his voice that embodies King, but also has a look of self-doubt deep within his eyes that humanizes this monumental human being. This doubt is seen in a wonderful scene that takes place after King has invited Americans all over the globe to join him in his march on Selma.
King’s first disastrous attempt to march on Selma ended in the violent beatings of protesters by the local law enforcement. The police, who have usually formed barricades against King, now stepped to the side and let him pass. King looks troubled because the police have never been so docile before in previous marches. He bends down on one knee and prays. The people behind him follow suit, and soon everyone is kneeling and praying. King is sceptical, and this moment of indecision, whether to march on or not, speaks directly to the toil of being a leader responsible for thousands of people.
A reoccuring gimmick the film uses is the onscreen appearance of an official-looking font from old FBI files. This type appears at multiple points in the film as a way to show how monitored King’s life was by the government and how all the events depicted actually happened, but honestly it becomes distracting. After a while, when the FBI logo comes on the screen, you know you’re in for a minute or so of white type, which is very distracting.
One thing I really appreciated about “Selma” is that the film’s setting remained in the Alabama city, and tells the story of the town as well as the Civil Rights Movement. “Selma” preserves in amber a certain moment in civil rights history, and the focus and clarity on this topic is unsurpassed. Instead of looking at the big picture it zooms into a specific march, and profits all the more from this specificity.
“Selma” was not nominated for the number of Oscars that it should have been nominated for. It was nominated only for best song, “Glory,” a rousing number that ties racism in the past to Ferguson and racism today, and for best picture. Oyelowo is deserving, as is the director, Ava DuVernay.
Photo Credit: Catlin Speak