Today is a special day in American history, as it is the federal holiday celebrating the life and work of civil rights organizer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reluctantly signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, it would be another seventeen years before all fifty states would even willingly acknowledge it as a day commemorating him by name. Despite seemingly every cynical politician these days putting their words into his mouth posthumously and declaring with absolute certainty that he would totally believe all of the same things about race in America that they do if he were alive today, Dr. King was a highly controversial figure among white Americans during his lifetime, with the majority of whites believing that his work was actually setting back the cause of racial equality in the 1960’s.
Dr. King’s overriding message wasn’t a mealy-mouthed plea asking why we can’t all just get along. He gave speeches on a lot more than white kids and black kids holding hands. He was a committed anti-racist advocate who called out segregationist politicians by name, decried moderates who believed in incremental half-measures over real change, and spoke of racism not as a sin committed by a select few individuals, but as a longstanding systemic evil imposing racially disparate economic, housing, penal, educational, environmental, health, and mortal consequences on every single black person in America.
Ava DuVernay, a publicist who didn’t pick up a camera until she was 32 years-old, decided to reclaim the real legacy of Dr. King in her feature film Selma, since more established white filmmakers sure weren’t in a hurry to do so. Much like Steven Spielberg’s against-all-odds extraordinary historical drama Lincoln, this was not a traditional Oscar-baiting cradle-to-the-grave biopic, but a focused narrative on the month when Dr. King led activists from the Dallas County Voters League, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to march along the highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery in solidarity demanding an end to Jim Crow disenfranchisement.
Just like Lincoln, our hero is the most prominent figure in the main conflict and his influence looms over the story, but the film is not padlocked to him throughout. In fact, even more so than Lincoln, Selma takes care to outline how these hard-fought victories for human rights are borne out of collective effort, and often through otherwise antagonistic alliances. Paul Webb was the sole credited screenwriter on this movie, but his original script was heavily rewritten by DuVernay, and one of her most significant revisions was creating a more balanced view of the ensemble of activists and politicians whom Dr. King led to made those marches eventually successful (including the women; outside of Coretta, none of the female characters in Selma were featured much at all in Webb’s original draft). Though his Presidential Library complained about the portrayal, I appreciated the acknowledgment that President Johnson’s partnership with Dr. King to pass federal voting rights protections was not without friction, and nothing in LBJ’s political career up to that point signaled his eventual legacy as the most significant civil rights Commander-in-Chief of the 20th century… and I say this as someone who thinks very highly of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
Following her example, I am not going to pin the successes of this movie solely on her. This was a collective effort from several accomplished artists working at the top of their game to bring a sense of weight and poignancy to a relatively modestly-budgeted project. One of them being D.P. Bradford Young, one of our finest working cinematographers, and the only one other than James Laxton who consistently applies careful consideration of how to properly light black performers on screen. In an era when darker complexions are still routinely obscured and flattened by mainstream movies, Young expertly lights a full range of skin tones in both large crowd sequences and more intimate one-on-one interactions without ever losing the details of the black faces he’s capturing visually. Just like DuVernay’s script and direction, Young also ensures his shots don’t exclusively privilege King actor David Oyelowo at the expense of everyone else’s point of view, emphasizing the combined movement at the center of this story.
Speaking of Oyelowo… man, was he a knockout in this or what? I’m sure the prospect of portraying one of the most iconic figures in all of black history would be an intimidating one for even the most seasoned actor, but he makes all the right choices in balancing King the public figure with King the man. Notice how the sermon-like oratory that we all know him best for is dropped by Oyelowo in nearly all of the more intimate scenes when he is talking privately with his wife and his organizing partners. Oyelowo, who also fought hard for DuVernay to direct, communicates adeptly the enormous emotional toll this responsibility had on Dr. King when the cameras and crowds are not on him, while embodying the overwhelming charisma he possessed when he was called upon to deploy his “speechifying voice.”
By the way, despite the complaints from people who accused Ms. DuVernay of pushing some hidden agenda or omitting crucial details from her film, fact-checkers later scored Selma 100% accurate, meaning every single plot development was rated by them as “True” or “True-ish” to what actually happened.
No other movie they analyzed received a perfect score from them. So not only is this a deeply moving drama led by a commanding but generous and deeply-felt performance, meticulously edited and beautifully shot, full of indelible scenes communicating both pain and promise, but Selma is also a well-researched historical document with a rare consistent fidelity to the truth.
So on this day, I urge you all to follow Ava DuVernay’s example and not just passively commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. To not simply listen to the most ubiquitous and uncontroversial clips of his “I Have A Dream” speech, but really dig into the full breadth of his many speeches and writings… and how depressingly salient his observations about systemic racism and white grievance politics are even today. Don’t praise his activism in the past tense, as if those efforts are now resolved and require nothing from us today. As Selma demonstrates, Dr. King was not some fully-formed Great Man who solved racism; his fight is unfinished and all of us are responsible for continuing it.