For those not familiar with the work of Ava DuVernay, one of the features of her movies is her ability to scrutinise the everyday. She has always been superb at shining a spotlight on the little things, the intimate moments, which so often go unnoticed, but in aggregate, are the ones that make a life.
However, the best-known aspect of the subject of her film, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is of the charismatic rhetorician. A towering exemplar of humanity, whose sheer presence is merely matched by the 30ft statue at the MLK Memorial in Washington D.C. The simplistic – and inaccurate – rendering of the man places him as someone who took on racism single-handed, and won.
With these two things in mind, it’s arguable that the first scene of Selma is also its most telling. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is getting ready to collect the Nobel Peace Prize, and racked with angst, he is unable to tie his ascot. Helped with this by his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), they quickly change the topic from the fight for civil rights, to their own homelife and a hopefully placid future; moving to a new home, while Dr. King sermons in a small church parish. This is discussed with a knowing – and unspoken – undertone that the racial inequity of America will never allow such an idyll to come to fruition.
This scene is a clear statement of intent that we’re not watching a reductive depiction of Dr. King and the story of the Selma protest marches, which set out to stop southern states leveraging the law to prevent black people voting.
After being unable to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that this issue should be the priority for his administration, King, along with trusted comrades head to Selma, as black citizens such as Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) consistently have their attempts to register to vote thwarted by the most specious of criteria.
Part of the conversation around Selma has sadly focused on the film’s accuracy, particularly in regards to its rendering of President Johnson. Not only was similar discourse negligible in heralded films such as Lincoln or Braveheart, but we should remember that while veracity is important, it’s also important to understand that a film based on real events isn’t a photograph, it’s a portrait. Congressman John Lewis recently stated that, “The role of art in our society is not to reenact history, but to offer an interpretation of human experience as seen through the eyes of the artist.”
One wonders if these discussions gave the AMPAS an easy excuse to ensure that Selma was largely ignored from the recent Oscar nominations. The fact that it also eschews a ‘white saviour’ narrative was also a likely factor. Writer, Mychal Denzel Smith’s summation of this was unerring.
But let’s focus on the film, starting with Oyelowo as Dr. King. While he’s been an actor I’ve long admired, I confess I wasn’t sure if he was the right casting. I’ve always thought him a strong ensemble performer, rather than an imperious leading presence. More of a Jellybean Johnson than a Morris Day. Well, Oyelowo proved me wrong in Selma, as he showed he can be both. He plays King as a man constantly weighed down by the heavy satchel of racism. His brow is perpetually furrowed, with his eyes often pointing downwards.
This was a key decision by DuVernay and Oyelowo. Some of his best acting comes not when he’s talking, but listening. Or at least, appearing to listen. On occasions in the film, he seems to have a faraway look, pondering his decisions, constantly trying to prepare for every eventuality. One can only imagine the turmoil going through Dr. King’s mind during this period. It felt redolent of this masterful scene from The Godfather.
However, the film isn’t all about the internalised anxiety of Dr. King. We also see him at his more forceful moments, particularly when he motivates crowds with his magnetic speeches. When Oyelowo has to wind it up, he does so with aplomb, especially in the movie’s final scene. It’s a tremendous performance.
DuVernay’s direction is equally deserving of praise. Despite handling such a large chunk of history, the movie never drags, partly due to the shrewd move to intersperse protest scenes with the planning of said protests. She ably turns her hand to telling a story on a much bigger canvas than she’s had in the past, without ever losing her indie sensibilities. The key moments are interactions between people, rather than just ideals, such as a horrific death scene that left me short of breath, and I don’t mean that figuratively.
In addition, DuVernay highlights the discord in the justice movement. She also ensures that the work done by women in the struggle doesn’t go overlooked, such as a lovely pro-black scene between Ejogo and Lorraine Toussaint.
The strain of fighting for equity takes an understandable toll on the King family. Coretta not only has to live with the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity, and his constant absences from home, but also with the numerous death threats aimed towards their children. She laments that she “can’t see life sometimes, because of the fog…”
For so long, Dr. King has been depicted as a real life superhero. What’s most revelatory about Selma is that it showed us how difficult it is trying to be a superhero, as well as a husband and father. I guess there’s a reason why the likes of Spiderman and Captain America don’t have children and mortgages.
DuVernay goes uncredited as a scriptwriter, but her excellent draft contains two notable scenes. One in which President Johnson tries to placate the hard line Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). We get a glimpse into the abyss of white supremacist thinking. The other is near the end, when King explains his own motivations for his work. It’s the scene that reveals the core of the man’s greatness, and it was interesting how Oyelowo turns away from the camera in that moment.
I must mention the work of the the cinematographer, Bradford Young. Filming black skin, in all its multifarious nuances is a task that can be difficult, due to its scarcity in mainstream American cinema. He does a stunning job during the Bloody Sunday scene, giving the sequence a visceral, hyperreal look by putting it under a fluorescent filter. Also, a word of note for Jason Moran for his score that correlated adroitly with the on-screen action.
While the disgust at the lack of award recognition for Selma is warranted, it should be remembered that a bauble is not the mark of a movie’s greatness, nor of its wider societal impact. Ava DuVernay has a created a film of staggering quality, and is fast becoming one of America’s most important filmmakers.
Oscars or not, Selma isn’t just a great film. It’s a necessary one.
 – Names such as Bayard Rustin, Diane Nash, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and Ralph Abernathy are ones that should never be forgotten from this era.
 – A younger version of Lewis appears in the film, played by Stephan James. It’s a breakthrough performance. James is a young actor to keep an eye on.
 – To that point, my favourite MLK speech isn’t I Have A Dream. But this. Scorched earth oratory.
 – Much like Amma Asante on Belle.
 – If you don’t know just how hardline, here’s a primer.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means.
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- ‘Selma’ finally liberates the political legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (mediadiversified.org)
- Black Women Directors at the Movies: The New ‘In’ Thing? (mediadiversified.org)