“As long as there is light in front of them, it’s all worth it.”
The best thing about “Selma” happened before cameras started rolling. For years, the story of Martin Luther King leading a march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital in Montgomery – a touchstone moment of the Civil Rights movement that led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 – was stuck in a developmental rut, with casts and directors rotating in and out of the project as timetables continually crumbled. At one point, Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, Robert De Niro, Cedric the Entertainer and Lenny Kravitz comprised the cast and “Precious” filmmaker Lee Daniels was slated to direct (as was Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Michael Mann, Stephen Frears, and Paul Haggis). This was, for a time, the closest “Selma” came to becoming a reality, but friction between producers at Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and Daniels, as well as Daniels’ adamant belief that British stage actor David Oyelowo was an incorrect casting choice for Dr. King, pushed Daniels away from the project rerouting the Academy Award nominee to helm “The Butler” instead. In an inspired move, the vacancy was filled by AFI alum, Ava DuVernay, an independent filmmaker championed by Roger Ebert for her impressive low budget features, “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere,” a director choice campaigned for by Oyelowo. As a start date for production finally became visible on the horizon, the Plan B producers ultimately understood that the frustrating delays had stemmed from their inability to find the right director, but with Ava they believed their search had finally come to an end. Needless to say, that belief was rightfully firm.
In the hands of this passionate, idealistic woman, “Selma” is more than just a by-the-books biopic or a bland historical dramatization. The work is a powerful achievement about the need for equality; the time and place so accurately displayed are of little importance to the themes and social ideas at stake because the social acuity on display is striking. DuVernay, with an impactful screenplay in hand, a team of expert craftsmen at her disposal and a remarkable ensemble absorbing her every intention, has carved a relic of a frightening time that stings harshly in the present. Viewers might want to attribute the images they see and the emotions they feel to a bygone time even though they mirror the feuded social happenings of today. Yes “Selma” is great, and strong, and searingly triumphant, but it also couldn’t be more necessary.
Release dates are picked for many reasons, but in the case of “Selma,” the timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous thus making its impact scarily poignant. In the wake of happenings like the mayhem in Ferguson, Missouri, and debates over voting rights in the present, the central elements of “Selma” do not feel as far removed as we’d probably like them to be. Historical dramas that are able to cling onto remnants of the social issues at their cores begin to ring of timeliness (a film like “Milk” comes to mind in this case), but “Selma” makes the jump to timelessness. It’s an unfortunate thought that “Selma” feels as modern as it does necessarily historical, but I think many viewers will realize that it’s a film that needs to be seen and needs to be in the public consciousness right now. We can dip into the history books and find photographic evidence that mirrors that happenings of today, but for a film released in late 2014 that was filmed with growing racial fervor in the real world, DuVernay has not only recreated history, but she’s cemented it. “Selma” is very real, it’s a recreation of a shameful moment in our country’s recent century, and it’s a looking glass for what we see on the news just about every single day. It’s ultimately quite tragic when you take a step back, and even worse is that today we don’t have a person like Martin Luther King, Jr. to look to.
And that is when the film that is “Selma,” the actual work directed by Ava DuVernay expresses its true power. The relevance is one thing, but the continuous merits on display for almost 130 minutes are something else altogether. “Selma” is a really, really incredible film and Ava DuVernay should rightfully be a strong candidate for Best Director of year. But before we praise Ava, applause must be given to the individual who made “Selma” as extraordinary as DuVernay did, and that’s director of photography Bradford Young.
Having lensed the stunning “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” last year, Young currently has two films in theaters on which he served as cinematographer. For J.C. Chandor, Young has painted every frame of “A Most Violent Year” in the vein of cinematographic legend Gordon Willis, and that comparison holds true for Young’s work in “Selma.” Reuniting with DuVernay after their collaboration on “Middle of Nowhere,” their new film not only asserts Young’s expertise, but affirms their partnership as one that should stand next to Deakins and the Coens, Kaminski and Spielberg, and Cronenweth and Fincher. “Selma” gives a whole new meaning to the aesthetic of a period piece, the digital polish shines in literally every setting. Also, a wonderful ensemble has never looked more luminous; Young proves to be the most skillful photographer for African-American performers in recent memory. Every picture possesses a painterly delicacy giving the film a heightened importance which only sustains its significance. Young also, as proved in Chandor’s film, is an exciting concocter of movement, and while “Selma” isn’t as motion-oriented as “A Most Violent Year,” there are some complex, involving, and carefully executed shots that are just wowing. Every shot within the scenes that take place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge are perfect. I cannot wait to see what Young does next, or better yet, what Young does with Ava down the road.
Inhabiting every one of Young’s frames is one of the most marvelous casts to grace the screen this year. While Oyelowo is a force unto himself, he’s supported by a list of character actors all doing really fine work. Some high profile faces pop up, like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr., and Tom Wilkinson does a really exceptional job as Lyndon B. Johnson with Giovanni Ribisi looming on the periphery as Lee C. White, but the personalities of the performers whose faces you recognize but names you might not remember resonate even stronger. Wendell Pierce of “The Wire” and Andre Holland of “The Knick” stand out immensely; Stephan James is an emotional heavyweight as SNCC pioneer, John Lewis, and even rapper Common is nothing but natural in a small role. Also, Tim Roth – an underrated favorite of mine – is the embodiment of century old ideals as Alabama Governor George Wallace; with limited screentime, Roth hams it up to just the right level, and shares a telling scene with Wilkinson’s Johnson during the film’s culminating moments. And still, the women are a triumphant grouping in and of themselves; DuVernay has recruited a stirring collection of phenomenal actresses including Tessa Thompson, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, and Carmen Ejogo, the latter calmly commanding one of the film’s finest scenes as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo makes one hell of an impression; she’s someone I believe we will be hearing a lot about in the forthcoming years.
But Oyelowo is the heart of this entire film; “Selma” really sinks or swims on Oyelowo’s work and he is truly nothing short of revelatory. The actor has said that he believes being able to play the iconic civil rights leader was a gift given to him by a higher power and, speaking spiritually, it’s a hard belief to protest. This is the kind of biographical embodiment that feels almost like a resurrection. Oyelowo might not resemble Dr. King in the way that Denzel Washington resembled Malcolm X., but Oyelowo makes us believe, from start to finish, that he is King. It’s a riveting turn, and the actor embraces many challenges, given that “Selma” covers more than just the eponymous Alabama town and the historic freedom walk that began there, but touchy personal subjects as well, notably King’s well-documented infidelity. Throughout this moving, unconventional biopic, Oyelowo maneuvers between portraying MLK, the icon and MLK, the man, in a way that metonymizes the roaring emotional triumph that is “Selma.”
And in the captain’s chair is Ava DuVernay. I’ve yet to watch DuVernay’s first two films, but I was knowledgeable of her widely favored talents after watching the Roger Ebert documentary, “Life Itself,” earlier this year. The late critic’s adoration for the filmmaker was profoundly heartfelt and it’s a small tragedy that Ebert will never be able to see “Selma” because the words he would have for the film far outdo anything I could write about it. DuVernay’s work here is stellar. Her understanding of the story, the subject matter, and the icons that embody this history is deep and I commend her thorough drive to construct the film with as little bias as possible. There has been controversy biting at her depiction of the story, but I can’t find anything but love for Ava’s storytelling abilities. From beginning to end, her hold on what she is trying to tell and what she is determined to convey is strong and without fault. It’s a rousing tale in its own right, but Ava really makes it sing. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will be absorbed by the history that Ava has tackled.
I’ve been lucky enough to see “Selma” twice now. I was even luckier to have my first viewing be the unofficial world premiere at AFI Fest in Hollywood back in early November. Originally scheduled to be just a 30 minute preview of the film, DuVernay and producer/co-star Oprah Winfrey decided – via Twitter, mind you – to debut the entire film at the Egyptian Theater less than 48 hours before the screening. Prior to the film’s start, DuVernay claimed that we were about to view a work in progress – a technically unfinished, soon-to-be-finalized cut with a few music cues not in place, some color uncorrected, etc. Anyway, the film I saw that night looked pretty damn finished, but the film that I got to see just a few days ago was seriously the real deal; whatever had not yet been secured by the AFI Fest showing made all the difference in the world in the final theatrical cut. This is a film that I knew I loved the first time, but it really blew me away the second time. It retains the intimacy of a smaller film, obviously derived from Ava’s previous work, but it truly is monumental; certain scenes are nothing short of towering and there is an immediacy to it that makes you honestly forget that you know how all of this madness ends. Ava DuVernay has made a remarkable film about a particular event that exemplifies the life, work, goals, and successes of Martin Luther King Jr. Worthy of comparison to both “Lincoln” and “Malcolm X,” DuVernay’s “Selma” is a rarely melodramatic, humbly assured, and sure-to-be widely recognized work that is all but guaranteed a fruitful legacy.
Review by Mike Murphy