Selma is stellar–for the most part. The plot focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the group around him, and the script has him change and develop as he encounters the stresses and strains that the events of Selma and the civil rights movement have on those who are with him on this journey–Coretta Scott King, John Lewis (played by the amazing Stephan James), and, yes, even L.B. Johnson. The character learns to see and acknowledge their pain, or to confront them (LBJ), and some return the favor. The sequence in the car in Selma when Lewis reminds MLK of his own principles and aspirations–at MLK’s lowest point–is among the film’s most pivotal, from a plot structure point of view. A small group of black men and women were taking on the strain of this protest, until such time as the press and the president listened–when the movement could, from a certain perspective, take on a life of its own.
The story was written to culminate with the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which MLK, flanked by the citizens of Selman (like Annie Lee Cooper, played with exquisite intelligence by Oprah Winfrey) and many priests and rabbis and even socialists (more on this later), finally cross in the last act. The film’s first two scenes at the bridge alone make this not just a near-masterpiece but an important historical document that educate through visual acuity and emotional intensity.
But after the second scene at the bridge, where MLK decides not to cross to protect his fellow marchers from an uncertain future on the other side, the film loses its way, and begins to feel like a movieland biopic. The final crossing and one other scene in the film–the court scene–suffer from glossy compression. The documentary footage of the march on Montgomery, woven into a lengthy montage with MLK’s speech from the steps of Alabama’s capitol building, opens one’s eyes and touches one’s soul, but the montage’s tidy and polished and triumphant depiction of the march deprives us of what we want to see: not MLK the Great Historical Speechmaker inspiring a faceless crowd, but MLK the man continuing grow and learn through the camaraderie of those who join him on this fifty mile march. The film compresses this event into a few minutes of screen time, but really ought to have given us an additional act about the march itself–about the people on it, their toils, their commitments– giving us a sense how they may have affected MLK’s sense of them and sense of himself, and culminating with a speech that cuts to closeups of these new people. Because in the campaign to persuade LBJ, Selma became about the interaction between people–locals and civil rights leaders–so allowing that to play out in a fuller representation of the march would have made sense in the context of this film. The march didn’t have to be handled like a Historical Event about which little need be said; it might have been woven into the drama.
None of this is director Ava DuVernay’s fault. She didn’t write the script, and her directing enhances every minute of this movie. Pay particular attention to how she stages, shoots and cuts the film’s many conversation scenes. The one between Coretta and King in the prison cell–an intense one after Malcolm X’s conversation with Coretta where MLK suggests that she is “enamored” of X–is especially brilliant. In a medium shot, King leans in profile across the widescreen frame, his face almost touching the right side of the frame, and when we cut to the reverse angle, we find Coretta’s face (also in profile) almost touching the left side, with a massive amount of negative space in the center and on the right. Highly unusual, and deeply expressive. MLK’s care for her comes through in this staging; he bends out toward her. And DuVernay’s reverse angle not only captures Coretta’s care for him–set side-by-side, the two frames would almost depict the two characters’ noses touching–but the cold, alienating space of this prison in Selma, where the characters can continue to act as civil rights leaders but have difficulty maintaining their intimacy.
One final gripe. Yet again, the socialists involved in the movement are given short shrift, here. James Baldwin, who marched to Montgomery, is nowhere to be found in the film. And Bayard Rustin is there, but as a go-between and one advisor among many, rather than the crucial figure he was. Rustin, on his influence on King: “I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King’s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott [of 1956] began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.” It was not the intuitions of faith but Rustin who convinced King to commit to non-violent protest. Perhaps there will be a time when figures like Baldwin and Rustin receive their due in Hollywood cinema.
P.S. I saw Selma at the AMC Esquire 7, in Clayton, Missouri, just twenty minutes from Ferguson. At the end, the audience applauded the film, and moments later, burst into raucous celebration when these lyrics from Common’s and John Legend’s “Glory” played over the end credits: “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.”