Still awake in the wee hours of the morning, eyes red-rimmed and tired, his shirt wrinkled, scratching out words to the draft of a speech that may be immortalized by history tomorrow.
That is the Martin Luther King Jr. of Selma.
While most audiences immediately think of the MLK standing on the steps of Washington, invariably confident and commanding with his stentorian voice of authority, Selma instead depicts that same man lying awake in the middle of the night and filled with doubt. As the mission of most award-season biopics seems to be thinly veiled hagiography of the historical figure in question, Selma stands in stark reproach from the expected storytelling methods adopted by a number of its genre siblings.
Instead, Selma helps illumine how much of MLK’s numerous, noteworthy achievements often came from both the cumulative effort made possible by his followers, as well as the terrible consequences inflicted upon those same followers for following in his footsteps. Most importantly, Selma realizes that the most effective means of understanding King as a man can best be found through the laser-focus of a singular event. One that eclipses both the best and worst qualities of his victories and defeats as embodied in the 1965 March from Selma.
David Oyelowo announces his portrayal of MLK with an immediate sense of control, command, and unique style. Rather than falling into the trap made by so many distinguished actors of turning the historical figures’ behaviorisms into glorified SNL impressions, Oyelowo imbues his portrayal with a distinctive performance that offers brief overtones toward the most recognizable features, while still separating itself as a performance that stands on its own two feet. From lonely jail cells to the pulpits of packed churched, Oyelowo depicts a man of complicated and multi-faceted nature—that is to say, as a human being, rather than just a character in a movie. His speeches roar with a magnetizing command of deliverance likely to elicit chills, and writer/director Ava DuVernay captures each moment simultaneously removed and yet intimately close.
Likewise, the writing allows for closer examination into his character by so adeptly navigating between King’s private and public life. Oyelowo and DuVernay allow insight into a man standing at the threshold of national landmarks and yet must still navigate the battles within his own personal sphere that risk toppling everything he has built. His wife worries about his commitment, his children’s safety, harassment calls at the midnight, and his own disciples questioning his strategies. And still, King must present himself to the public as a man of unwavering confidence—as a black minister capable of looking the President of the United States in the eye and, respectfully, demanding that this issue cannot wait one day longer.
But like the very King of his movie, the supporting cast demands recognition for being just as integral to the cumulative effect seen in the final result. From Carmen Ejogo, as MLK’s wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, and Common as James Bevel, each member of the astounding ensemble relishes his or her moments as players in a grander scheme under King’s direction. Each character feels recognizable and personable enough to never get lost in the middle of things, and each contributes a specific layer of understanding in the multitude of forces at work in helping realize those accomplishments often solely accredited to King.
The small character digressions work powerfully, helping demonstrate the stakes for a family in Alabama supporting King’s cause to very personal and devastating effect. A particular highlight involves the great up-and-comer Keith Stanfield (of Short Term 12) and a brutal scene at a restaurant with his family. The scene exemplifies DuVernay’s skill in modulating actors for subtlety and nuance, favoring moments of quiet understanding that imbue a sense of authenticity rather than typical biopic fare of striving for the histrionic scene stealers.
Nonetheless, DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young capture the scope of the event in stunning detail. In the brutal opening murder of four young girls via church bombing, Young bathes the scene in saturated yellow light that paints the setting in an almost heavenly aura—the four children about to be murdered as angels awaiting their fate—and the actual bombing as an apocalyptic horror lending new light to the importance of King’s mission – that mission personified through the very powerful “Bloody Sunday” sequence.
With the entire narrative leading to this moment, DuVernay allows the sequence to build and escalate with palpable tension. The fear of the people of Selma, as they stare down the authorities with weapons in hand across the bridge, allows for a feeling of dread to expand over the entirety of the scene and the gruesome horrors perpetuated by its climax.
The only real criticism can be found in the decision to include constant subtitles detailing the FBI’s reports of King’s activities. Though an interesting decision, the idea never really pays off in any satisfying way and becomes distracting and unnecessary. Still, this is a very minor, minor criticism. And not something that remains at the top of the viewer’s mind in comparison to the many moving sequences, Oyelowo’s revelatory performance, and the overall level of excellent filmmaking on display.
By focusing on the prism of this specific event, Selma eschews the typical biopic mistake of attempting to negotiate a story out of a man’s entire life and instead allows an organic narrative to be formed. While most biopics favor the “mile wide and inch deep” approach, Selma’s decision to offer a more introspective look into this singular historical incident allows a broader understanding into MLK’s ideology from the man he was to the man that would be immortalized by history on the steps of Washington. A man not born into the history books as the revered figure that he would become, but a man filled with the same flaws and imperfections as those people of Selma following him across the bridge. A man still awake in the wee hours of the morning, eyes red-rimmed and tired, his shirt wrinkled, scratching out words to the draft of a speech that may be immortalized by history tomorrow.
That is the Martin Luther King Jr. of Selma.