THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS this year for movie of the year have by and large veered largely between the decorous (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game”), the inoffensive (“Whiplash”, The Grand Budapest Hotel”and “Boyhood”) and the despicable (“American Sniper”). Really, only two stand out; only two don’t seem to have been written by accountants, lawyers and marketing men… shorn of passion, and burnished into an inoffensive safety zone: “Birdman”, that delirious, trippy flight of redemption and the extraordinary “Selma”. The latter is the stunningly powerful, emotionally rich and flawlessly directed movie that focuses on that one moment in America’s modern civil war when, in 1965, the State unleashed horrendous violence on its Black population as they struggled to get voter registration. Into this cauldron of hate and anger emerged one of its most powerful leaders, Martin Luther King.
Director Ava DuVernay has given us a movie of rare, raw and heartfelt passion. It zeros in on King’s uncompromising drive to make the constitutional freedom to vote – denied to the Black community ‘down South’ – a legal, actionable reality. The movie’s success is that, from that first shocking explosion, it manages to breathe felt life into the often abstract idea of the qualities that make for true leadership, as embodied by her all too human hero.
The storytelling unfolds on two interconnected levels: the historical events that took place at Selma (some of the footage is actual TV footage of the carnage), and – “cometh the moment, cometh the man”- the man whose leadership transformed a country.
But the movie isn’t about King per se. It’s not one of those ‘warts and all’ bio-pics. It’s about the idea of leadership. This is not to say that we aren’t privy to a strong sense of the man. DuVernay, and the outstanding David Oyelowo as King, give us a man who is thoughtful, eloquent, empathetic and deeply spiritual. He is also stubborn, and, we are told, unfaithful (that’s the warts side). He is the good father and the flawed husband. But he is more, and this is where the movie’s focus lies.
“Selma” offers us a meditation on the nature of leadership. We see three contrasting examples of it: LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) is the amoral politician, the leader of the nation for whom ‘the Negro question’ is just a pain in the ass; George Wallace (Tim Roth), governor of his State is a segregationist demagogue, gutlessly egging on his voting base still locked into a plantation mentality. To these two archetypes add the Black warrior activists intent on the catharsis violence.
King has traces of all of them: he too is an astute politician who knows how to use the occasion to his own advantage, who knows how to use his access to the President to further his cause; his extraordinary preacher’s eloquence is his demagogic gift; and he is, albeit peaceful, a masterful activist. But he transcends these labels. What none of them have is a clarity of moral vision, an abiding sense of faith and self belief that his is a mission of God.
His faith energizes and empowers him. In an exchange with LBJ, the President tells King (something like) ‘You’re an activist, and you do what you have to do. I’m a politician, and I do what I have to do”. Not for the first time, LBJ misreads King’s sincerity. For he is much more than an activist, he’s a genuine, faith energized, cynicism free leader, fighting- it is made clear – not for Blacks as a distinct group, but for Americans, and the idea of American justice, of which Blacks are just a part.
It is this moral stature – the mark of true leadership – that enables him to rise to the challenge offered by the events in Selma, and that gives him the courage and strength to be able to take on the state and its stubborn vested interests.
And just as King, the leader, transcends King the (flawed) man, LBJ’s moment of truth also comes during a conversation with an unyielding George Wallace. LBJ tells him to think beyond 1965 to 1985. How will history judge them, he wonders. Wallace is unmoved; it is as if the hatred that fuels racism cannot stand up to the honesty of introspection.
In Selma, the movie suggests, the U.S had reached the tipping point. The violence was shocking. The Storm Trooper forces that try to block King’s march from Selma to Montgomery (State capital) bludgeon everyone in sight: young and old, men and women, the fit and the infirm. The Blacks are attacked with the venomousness of a society seething with pent up anger.
It was King’s determined leadership that shifted the course of history away from further quasi civil war to a more hopeful place. DuVernay suggests that Selma represents the point at which, for some, the pragmatism of politics yielded to the promise of justice. The point when politicians and activists became leaders, the point when the Black/White divide collapsed into the idea of the American. (A straight line past Andrew Young who became mayor of Atlanta to Obama?)
There is no question that this is the outstanding movie of the year, and that David Oyelowo is the outstanding actor of the year. That he failed to earn even an Oscar nomination is probably just a tawdry mix of xenophobia (“not another bloody Brit”…after all the roles of King, Coretta his wife and LBJ are all acted by Brits) and good old racism. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
And yet, the movie is an uplifting and optimistic one. DuVernay’s shows how the peace and faith and sense of brotherhood that defined King’s American dream is a true beacon shining in the night. The movie’s force lies in its ability to move beyond a – dated- dramatization of history to a perspective of a path to be followed.
It certainly is a path much needed. The police still seem to kill Black people with impunity. The visceral hate many Red state Republicans have for – ‘foreign-born’ – Obama is undisguised racism, The CIA’s wiretapping then has turned into the NSA’s omni-surveillance.
Where’s King now that we need him more than ever?
Selma: dir Ava DuVernay. David Oyelowo (King), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta), Tim Roth (Gov. Wallace) Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (LBJ), Giovanni Ribisi (counselor to the president). Writer: Paul Webb, Exec producer Brad Pitt