The following contains spoilers for Selma. You have been warned.
Ava DuVernay’s civil rights film Selma may have just snuck into theaters in time to qualify for this year’s awards run, but it’s just beginning to show wide enough for most folks around the country to see the Martin Luther King, Jr.-centered historical spectacle. Though perhaps “spectacle” is unfair to the intimacy of the film…I’m getting ahead of myself. Tyler Lyon and I both saw the movie, and we got together to talk about it.
Tim: So Selma. We didn’t end up reviewing this one, so this is the first time either you or I have had the chance to give our thoughts on the movie. I know I’ve got some particular pieces of the film I want to talk about, but let’s kick things off with some baseline reactions. For me, I really enjoyed the film, I think there were moments that were outrageously powerful, I think David Oyelowo’s performance was fantastic…and yet I still have this nagging feeling that it didn’t all come together quite as well as I might have hoped. I’m still trying to puzzle out why, so maybe as we’re talking today we can work through some of that.
Tyler: I definitely understand where you’re coming from. The core of the movie, the organization and protest march from Selma to Montgomery, is one of the most impactful stories of the year and it’s told extremely well. I think the worst parts of the move – that are few and far between – are the more traditional “biopic” moments. For me these are best shown in the film’s opening scene where Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is trying to register to vote. The scene itself is necessary because the right to vote is the core of the movie. In that scene though we get an excuse for Oprah to recite the majority of the constitution’s preamble. Once the films main plot picked up so did the rest of it.
Tim: I liked the Oprah scene, although I do think it’s pretty funny that “The Oprah Scene” is immediately how I want to refer to it. It’s a good scene and does a good job, but it does feel an awful lot like an excuse to get Oprah in the movie.
Tyler: She’s also the protester who gets specifically assaulted during an early protest. I was surprised at how little she’s actually in the movie after that, given her presence in last year’s The Butler.
Tim: In the context of the whole movie it is nice that we have a recognizable face (both the character and the actor) to make the action more personal, especially when we get to scenes like that protest where she’s beaten. The movie telegraphs the tactic a bit, but it’s still effective. It does the same thing with Keith Stanfield, who plays Jimmie Lee Jackson, the young man who’s murdered during the nighttime police raid in Selma before the march to Montgomery. Which brings me around to what I think may be the root of my misgivings about some of Selma’s plot. At several points, Selma makes itself about the masses of ordinary people who came together to force social change. At other times, it’s a personal look at MLK’s private life. I’m not sure the split focus is working in the movie’s favor.
Tyler: I see the discrepancy there, but when making an MLK movie there’s a lot of weight in the material. During those scenes of his personal life, I couldn’t help but think back to learning about him and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s during grade school. For me MLK is always treated as Martin the Icon, and I have to believe it’s the same for a lot of people. I never thought of MLK taking out the trash from the kitchen or the effect his position as a leader of the movement had on his family life. Selma has scenes of both here, and I thought it was a nice reminder that he was as much a man as he was anything else.
Tim: Completely agree, there are some powerful scenes in there. I appreciated the subplot about MLK’s distance from his wife and possible infidelity. Slight digression: One of my favorite scenes from a filmmaking perspective was the early on where they’re getting ready for the Nobel ceremony. They’re having a minor argument and the scene is essentially filmed in shot/reverse shot (although a little more visually interesting than that) until MLK relents – I can’t remember exactly what they’re talking about, but a decision has been reached – and the camera cuts to a shot beyond the 180 of the previous setup. It’s a neat little visual cue that the characters’ perspective has changed in some way. But to get back to the point, it’s those really intensely personal scenes that I think probably give Selma it’s dualistic tone.
Tyler: It’s that tone that makes it all the more impressive. There are a million ways to go with a movie about MLK, whether it’s the march that drives Selma, his relationship with his wife, with Malcolm X, with Lyndon Johnson and many others. For a movie that is so focused on one event from MLK’s time as a civil rights leader, its amazing how well the film includes everything it does.
Tim: That’s why I still really liked this movie despite some of the issues it does have, presenting this one moment in time. (And the issues really are pretty minor, for the most part.) Selma does a great job of providing context. Still, I couldn’t help armchair directing this one a little bit. Want to depart briefly into the land of wild supposition?
Tyler: Have at it.
Tim: So imagine a version of Selma that focuses almost exclusively on the characters around Selma (the town) and MLK. So we still get our Annie Lee Coopers and Jimmie Lee Jacksons, but we also get more of the other preachers and student leaders who have close, personal contact with him instead of some of MLK’s home and personal life from his own perspective. So we have this towering, policy affecting figurehead that’s already seen in Selma to some extent, but like the scene of the meeting following Martin’s prayer and decision to turn the march to Montgomery around on its 2nd attempt, as we draw nearer to the legend (Martin the Icon as you put it earlier) through his associates, we also deconstruct his heroic stature. It would be a very tricky movie to make for the subtlety required, but I think you could achieve some of the same effect in humanizing MLK that the scenes with Coretta provide while producing a more unified picture. Though you might loose some of that national context in the process, I’ll admit.
Tyler: That would be very interesting. Now that you mention it, I would have loved to see more of the way his turning around on that 2nd march attempt affected those around him. That movie is still out there to be made as there are many others. I’m currently looking at a list of “Films about Martin Luther King, Jr.” – on Wikipedia, mind you – and there are only eight listed, including Selma. For this or any historical film, I always have to ask myself, “Would this have the same effect as a documentary?” If director Ava DuVernay had chosen to do things like show actual footage of the police raid on the first attempt at the march rather than a more POV-style, I might have thought so. It seems like there are nearly infinite ways to tell what seem like an infinite number of MLK stories. Give the story told here, I thought it was done in nearly the best possible way.
I do want to sidetrack a bit because we have gone a while here without mentioning Selma’s coincidental resonance with current events. How much did that come to mind for you and how do you think it affected your viewing of the film?
Tim: Obviously this was an important issue for the filmmakers, as evidenced by the first song to play over the credits which calls out Ferguson, Missouri by name. There were two things that were most poignant to me. One was the way so many people, particularly the clergy, flocked to Selma to participate in the march. I think we’ve seen something similar in recent months, particularly in Ferguson. It’s remarkable how peaceful the Selma march remained (at least on the part of the protestors), and while there have been numerous such marches in Ferguson and throughout the country, we’ve also seen quite a few that devolved into chaos, violence, and looting.
Tyler: I can’t help but think that points to the significance of having a figurehead like MLK leading protests like that.
Tim: Sure. But I wonder if such a singular figurehead could exist today, which leads me into the second thing that stood out: the impact of the media. That’s the entire plan in Selma. The protesters are there, in effect, to get the shit beat out of them and make sure there are news cameras there to capture it. The broadcast of the melee of the first march spurred dramatic action, and in part I have to believe it’s because everyone was watching (that’s a three network world). Today, we’ve got a million channels, but could it be that’s only diluting the message?
Tyler: I think it is to an extent. Though now one group doesn’t have to all meet in one place to get their message across through protest. If there’s a protest in any city no matter what the size, any cell phone video could get national coverage, which in a weird way brings every protest together even if not every group has the exact same message. Bringing this back to Selma and your thoughts about other movies that could be made based on moments from the film, the one that I would love to see is about those student groups and how the leader of said group had some conflict with what MLK was doing there. The civil rights movement of that time is always simplified in textbooks and classrooms to MLK’s movement and Malcolm X’s movement. Speaking of, what did you think of the one scene with Malcolm X? Did that give you enough of that relationship? Was it even this movie’s responsibility to do so?
Tim: I think at this point I’ve more or less said my piece on those side parts. I think it’s interesting to hear Malcolm X talk about his relationship to MLK’s movement, especially so close to his death. I’m not sure it’s needed in this movie, or if it even helps much with the context the movie’s trying to paint…but it is interesting. I do feel I’ve sounded a lot more negative towards Selma so far than I actually feel, so before we get any further, I want to make sure we talk about one of my favorite scenes of the entire movie, and one of the most emotional scenes I’ve seen in the movies in a long time. I’m talking about the early scene where the little girls are blown up in the church. It’s difficult to describe the shock I found myself in. And not just like a jump scare in a horror movie, it was something more akin to medical shock. I saw what happened, the movie made me viscerally feel it, and I found myself unable to process the horror. I love the way DuVernay left the screen full of dust and light and color in a complete abstraction of reality. I would have been comfortable with that stretching even longer as I struggled to comprehend. My jaw was literally hanging.
Tyler: I had the exact same reaction. At first it felt like a simple jump scare but you’re spot-on with the way it lingered. The scene perfectly captured how this was just a moment before something tragic happened. So much so, that I didn’t even think that scene was going to be the bombing even though I knew the bombing was in the movie. Since you hit on the scene so well I want to quickly mention that the conversation the girls were having leading up to the tragedy – about how Coretta wears her hair – gave me a new perspective as well and that’s of the King family as celebrities, the way a couple like Jay-Z and Beyonce is today. I would love to see a movie about MLK from the perspective of someone or a group of people who only admired him from afar.
Tim: Before we end, I do think we need to take a moment to talk about David Oyelowo’s performance in the lead role. From the physical side alone, it’s pretty remarkable. I was watching the Golden Globes on Sunday with some friends, and one of them saw Oyelowo at what I guess you’d call his normal weight and couldn’t believe it was the same guy.
Tyler: He definitely doesn’t normally look like MLK, though I can’t say I thought Oyelowo looked especially like him in the film either. I found the majority of their similarities come from the attitude and demeanor Oyelowo carried in his performance. The physicality is certainly part of that but I was pleased with the way he’s almost playing a representation of MLK while still keeping to his most memorable qualities. Too many times these performances become impersonations or caricatures, but in keeping away from the obvious resemblences, the performance stands out even more.
Tim: I love the way you put that – “similarities come from the attitude and demeanor.” I think Selma does a very good job of that on the whole. Tom Wilkinson doesn’t look a lot like LBJ. He might not even act a lot like him, I’m not sure. But he’s a good representation of the idea of LBJ, at least as far as this story is concerned. And I don’t mean to say that there’s virtue in a willfully inaccurate representation. (There was some hubbub in the lead up to release about the voracity of LBJ’s hesitence to act.) But when you’re telling a story, you use your characters, your plot, your themes in concert with one another. So as much as I’ve talked about how at times Selma can seem a bit fractured, it’s also frequently cohesive. And I think that, as much as any of the individual elements of particular quality we’ve talked about, is why I did really enjoy the movie.
Tyler: Agreed. I hope it continues to do well and more people get out to see it.