I’m convinced Selma is the movie Spielberg has been trying to make these past few years – a smart, beautifully executed, relevant, unabashedly pop crowd pleaser that elucidates a historical event we didn’t truly understand, even if we thought we did. Actual insight, from a biopic! It’s an awards season miracle.
Truthfully, I almost didn’t even want to see it. Everything about it screamed self-serious, self-congratulatory awards bait, right down to Oprah’s name among the producer credits. (Overheard right before the film started: “Did Oprah have something to do with this movie or am I just being terribly racist? …Oh thank God.”) I want to see movies because I want to see them, not because I’m supposed to. Important subject ≠ important movie. But other than a few inexplicable Oprah reaction shots peppered throughout (she plays one of the marchers, which I assume was a condition of having her name attached to it), there’s very little to criticize about this film.
Selma tells the story of one of MLK’s lesser-known crusades, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been passed and King had already won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Even after segregation had officially been outlawed, white southern election workers still had plenty of clever little tricks for disenfranchising black voters – the poll tax, the literacy test, publishing the names and addresses of those who registered in the local papers as the 1960s equivalent of doxxing – so much so that some heavily black counties in the south had zero registered black voters.
If the most frequently told Civil Rights stories deal with the earlier battles, that’s probably because overt segregation is a simpler story, with a more cathartic ending. But the subtle disenfranchisement was just as bad and much harder to fight, and that’s where Selma begins.
It cleverly illustrates the problem with a brutally succinct and intense depiction (like, legit jump scare) of the 1963 4 Little Girls bombing in Birmingham. For MLK, played with just enough flourish but never ham by David Oyelowo, this becomes the perfect framing device. Two years after the fact, no one has been brought to justice, because, as MLK frames it to LBJ, the white-controlled police departments won’t bring charges, and even if they do, the white-controlled juries won’t convict, and black people have no way to boot them out of office because they can’t register to vote. This succinct, perfectly articulated “Now! Now! Now!” moment is like everything Lincoln wanted to be, but better, and with less grandstanding and Sally Field wearing bonnets.
This is where the Selma to Montgomery marches come in. Still, to say MLK and company beat voter discrimination by organizing a march is simplistic to the point of near meaninglessness, and Selma‘s astute grasp of this one important point is what makes it so much better than your usual uplifting speech flick.
I’m reflexively terrified of a film about a protest march. I can’t help but worry that it’s going to be two hours of people holding hands and looking dignified, silently looking to the Heavens to protect their righteous cause. Yes, civil rights workers were courageous, I think we’ve all seen that movie. But Selma puts the lie to the value of symbolic gestures.
I sometimes wonder if we’ve all seen so many shitty protest biopics and been lectured by our Be-in Boomer parents so much that we honestly think just complaining loudly enough about a problem will make it go away. Selma depicts MLK’s organizations not just as something he did because it was right, like the little pastor who could, but as a calculated risk/reward political gambit every single step of the way. The drama of Selma isn’t simplistic good vs. evil, it’s a political chess match. Like House of Cards, but with less dog murder and nudity (for better and worse).
Just being right doesn’t get you there. The rarely acknowledged truth is that if the marchers had marched and the local authorities just let them, not much is accomplished. King’s SCLC, along with SNCC and the DVLC, had to take a calculated risk that the Alabama sheriffs and governor George Wallace would be under pressure from their hard-line racist constituents to not look weak in the face of mass uppitiness. AND that they’d then crack down brutally enough with the cameras rolling to sicken a nation into action. It was only then that getting hit with clubs and shot with firehoses had actual political power.
DuVernay and Selma screenwriter Paul Webb have been criticized for playing up LBJ’s resistance to the march and downplaying his involvement in it. I’m not a historian so I can’t speak to every detail, but as DuVernay has noted in interviews, the crowd ends up cheering for LBJ by the end, and Selma‘s depiction of him (played by the always great Tom Wilkinson) seems entirely even-handed. It puts a point on the issue with another perfect, trailer-ready Spielberg line, when LBJ tells King “You got one issue? I got 100.”
LBJ isn’t portrayed as hostile to the cause, he’s sympathetic, but for the most part his job is triage, trying to deal with the issues most dangerous to him first. In order to succeed, the Civil Rights movement has to make their issue the most pressing. By being a sympathetic character forced to realize the depth of the problem and act, LBJ has this beautiful character arc that’s sort of a metaphor for the rest of the nation as a whole.
The key to any good protest movement is making people on the sidelines choose sides, and Selma makes the overt point that having a more obviously dickish antagonist like George Wallace or Selma Sheriff Jim Clark makes the job that much easier, and that’s why they chose Selma in the first place. Selma‘s depiction of George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, might be even more perfect than of LBJ. Rather than painting him as a fire-breathing racist (and the real Wallace certainly had his moments), Selma‘s Wallace a weasel, using every kind of rhetorical shenanigan to try to justify a segregationist stance that’s made him more popular than ever. There’s a beautiful moment between Roth and Wilkinson illustrating the point that you know you’re probably on the wrong side of history when you can’t give a straight answer about your own position. “What’s that? Well sure, I agree black people should eat, I just don’t believe that they should have spoons.”
Selma is a movie constructed of smart choices, of subtle, just-enough tweaks to the expected formula. Especially effective is the way it uses FBI surveillance files on King as footnotes. At one point early in the film, King calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson late at night after a particularly trying day, just to hear her sing him a song over the phone. It’s the kind of moment that would normally set off my biopic bullshit detectors, but, as if reading my mind, Selma throws in an actual FBI surveillance log as a footnote to the scene, noting the exact time of the call from King to Jackson in the FBI’s files.
Now, even if we don’t know for certain that she actually sang him a song in that call, at least we know how the filmmakers made the leap. We’ve gotten so much more media savvy in the information age, especially when it comes to myth making, and for the longest time, biopics have refused to evolve. Selma may not have quite the archival/reenactment mix of something like American Splendor that I’ve long advocated, but the footnotes are a step forward. At least now, that little moment is open source enough that it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to hide something, to squeeze more drama out of it than was really there.
As expected, Selma wraps up with an MLK speech, but it’s an impeccably chosen one, one of the most insightful sentiments King ever expressed*, about segregation being the moneyed class’s lie to poor whites. Like so much else in the film, there isn’t much else to do but nod your head and appreciate a perfectly chosen moment.
Everyone applauded at the end of the screening, and for once I didn’t feel like a jackass for joining in.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
*The Selma speech is a paraphrased version (they couldn’t get rights to the original, apparently) of the real one delivered at the end of the march.
…then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow.And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.