This is the best mainstream film that I have seen for some time: it is certainly better than the competitors that carried off Academy Awards. It may sound banal but perhaps the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave in 2014 sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers from stereotypes, such as Afro-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!
Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one remembered. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. The main aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events, which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or conservative.
The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence was shot using noticeable CGI techniques, which the film tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.
The film continues with scenes from the private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual day to day experience of the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of J. Edgar Hoover.
The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. When we do hear it there is frequently a noticeable percussion strand. Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.
When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. The sound of noises, such as truncheons hitting heads, are obviously increased in volume for effect. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches: as the marchers cross a now famous bridge it swells with orchestral accompaniment: an infrequent trope in the film. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.
Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.
If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film thrice now, on each occasion there were good sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence. After the most recent screening the manager told me a number of people stopped to remark on the power and emotional impact of the film
The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit: she does though get ‘a DuVernay film’. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars, including Harry Belafonte, are coming to join them they break into a chorus of Deooooo! Daylight come…. [The opening lyric of a Belafonte hit].
The film is also conscious on the issue of gender. On the way to Selma the black leadership group stop at the home of a female activist for a meal: women nearly always provide the food in this film. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him. However this is followed by a scene where Correta visit Martin in prison and shows herself more open to the political implications of the visit.
In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical, but that too is in line with the intent of the film.
The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and high and low-angle shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. Young uses an amount of rim lighting, which is very effective in setting out the black faces with their darker pigmentation. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Here in bright sunshine and standing before the white capital of the State, King addresses his jubilant followers. Just to give an example of two sequential scenes. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist in a car. They are partly in darkness, mainly lit by spill and reflective lighting. As the conversation develops we see moments where the light falls frontally on them. And in the following sequence a rejuvenated King stands with his colleagues in the brightness of the State Supreme Court Building and is joined by Coretta. [In what is almost now a convention Martin Sheen appears as the Judge].
The film was mainly shot on location. This in itself provides rich denotative and connotative meanings. A key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was named after a southern general, Senator and one-tine leader of the Ku Klux Klan. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. The meeting between Malcom X and Coretta is shot against a brightly coloured stained glass window. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, siting regally in the Oval office. More subtly King’s home features a portrait of Gandhi. However, at one point marital tensions arise when Coretta is sent a tape recording by the FBI that suggests King’s extra-martial affairs: a small statuette of Gandhi, notable for his calls for purity, is positioned in the foreground.
And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue is mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action. This is several times combined with well-known songs or offers music which clearly has a base in the spirituals beloved of the black communities. At one point as police violence is meted out to the black protesters on a key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we hear Mahalia Jackson on the soundtrack: later, again on the bridge, the marchers are accompanied by Odette’s rendering of ‘Masters of War’. And at the end of the credits, after the Award winning ‘Glory’, there is a medley of protest songs sang by ‘workers in Selma’.
The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anarmorphic ratio, which means stretching or cropping the archive footage – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition and I noted this at times in this film. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. In the scenes with chiaroscuro there was sometimes a lack of definition in the background, and I am sure this would have improved with higher quality. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.
Religion and religious motifs are central to the film, as one would expect. In a key scene between the imprisoned King and a colleague, shot in chiaroscuro, we hear a quotation from the Gospel of St Matthew. King’s sermons/speeches to church congregations are vital moments in the development of the political campaign. Comments and discussions are full both of political and religious illustrations. And moment like the initial explosion or before the stained glass window constantly remind of the central role of religious experience and commitment in the black civil rights movement.
In terms of its politics this film is only partly radical, as you might expect when the distributor are C20th Fox and Pathé. A colleague suggested that the film reflected the politics of Ofrah Winfrey, who is also a producer. I only have a generalised notion of her political values, but the film is clearly reformist. One can see this in its treatment of the agreement between the black leadership and the US political establishment. It is clear again in the cameo for Malcom X, who in the last days of his life was rethinking his politics. However, the struggle around voting rights is mainly about the oppression of the black US population rather than their exploitation. In that sense the film charts an important opening up of black political power.
However, the film’s ending does emphasise one side of the struggle. Among the end credits, which give ‘what next’ for the main characters, we find a woman who shortly afterwards was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And of course, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and even George Wallace died or suffered from extreme violence. But others leaders, like Andrew Young, had successful political careers: the dominant tone here. Yet in recent US elections it has been clear that, especially in the South, that the restriction of entitlement for black voters is a continuing problem. There are the continuing series of deaths of Afro-Americans at the hands of the police. And Barack Obama, who obviously approves of this film, himself still suffers some of the derogatory attacks endured by King and his colleagues decades earlier.
Still this is a powerful and moving drama with a lot more politics at its core that is the norm for Hollywood. If you see one Oscar winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.