A Portrait of the Hero as a Human

Film review: Selma (Director: Ava DuVernay)

By Sascha Krieger

No, this doesn’t seem right: words of doubt are the first we hear in this film centering on the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader if the United States civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s Martin Luther King. Dies it refer to his Nobel acceptance speech, the festive tie, or his public role? Selma  starts long after King talked about his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the night of King’s greatest honor, the Oslo Nobel ceremony. A global hero, an admired fighter for justice and equality, a deeply hated figure amongst those who feared and opposed change. The film accompanies King through the battle for voting rights in the Alabama town of Selma right to President Johnson announcing the Voting Rights Act in 1965.Selma focuses on the events of those months and on the people at their center, first and foremost King himself. British actor David Oyelowo plays King as a determined leader, a charismatic speaker and a doubting and quite flawed human. As the hero King moves to the shadows, the man emerges.

Selma (Atsushi Nishijima © Studiocanal)

Image: © Studiocanal

It is Selma’s great strength that it eschews all the temptations of the biopic genre, that it avoids the spectacular but is content with shedding a glimpse of a pivotal moment in recent American history. It moves into back rooms, kitchens, King’s home, churches turned into makeshift meeting rooms. The public stance – the standoff in front of the Selma courthouse, the three marches to Montgomery, King’s speeches – provide the narrative frame and are filmed in a haunting way, especially the first march’s violent suppression that director Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young depict in slow motion, accentuating the brutality as well the suffering of the brave marchers while giving the whole scene the nightmarish quality of an event that defies understanding. It is in scenes like this that the viewer realizes why these men and women do what they do, why they really have no choice. The doubts come in the more intimate moments: King’s conversations with his wife, the seemingly endless debates with other leaders, an attempt as resignation diverted in a long and calmly narrated car ride.

Here, King is a man full of fear and doubt, who calls singer Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her soothing voice, who often wonders if the price isn’t too high, if he isn’t hurting his family too much, if his public struggle might not do more harm than good. A man, too, who likes a laugh and who has not been entirely faithful to his wife, a man not completely immune to fame and admiration. But also a stubborn fighter who stands up to President Johnson, played memorably by another British actor, Tom Wilkinson. It is true that Johnson’s portrayal is a little more negative than history warrants but the film needs him as a well-enough meaning but pragmatic antagonist far removed from the plain racism of people like Alabama governor George Wallace. Another troubled man, beset by various pressures, trying to do the right thing but more than once lost in a tangle he can hardly see through. In the end, Johnson comes around and King triumphs but it is a triumph that is only the beginning of new fights – for both men.

Young’s camera often moves King off center, slightly to the left or right, symbolizing a man far less certain than his public persona. A golden light drenches most scenes, not romanticizing, suggesting a different time, the treacherous marshlands of memory, while the camera brings these people close to us with their struggle that is far from over today. a struggle fought as much in dark rooms and conflicting, doubtful minds as on the street. What Selma most succeeds in is to take the events of 1965 out of the history books and return them to the people behind them. It depicts the legends as humans, struggling with all kinds of everyday human conditions, fear, doubt, indecisiveness, anger. It depots King and his allies as humans fighting a human fight that is heroic entirely in it being completely ordinary, at least for those involved. Change starts with the „ordinary“ who come to a point when they feel like they have no choice but to act. When, in the end, Selma uses original footage of the third march, Ferguson (which is alluded to in the film’s Oscar-winning flagship song „Glory“) seems closer than ever. Selma  could not be any more contemporary than it is.

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