A history for our own time
The most striking thing about Selma is not necessarily the story itself – though the intense violence and hatred demonstrated by many of the characters is difficult to grasp – rather it is the when the story takes place. The film centres around the events of March, 1965, in Alabama, where Dr. King and his fellow activists helped turn a single town into the focal point of national interest and awareness against vehement opposition and threat to their very lives. It seems impossible that these scenes of poverty, racism, and civil unrest took place only one generation ago and right in front of our eyes. Has it really only been 50 years since Selma?
Selma delivers tantalizing moments of depth. The performance of David Oyelowo as Dr. King is gripping. Often physically still, Oyelowo is able to convey a nearly constant sense of the magnitude and terrible burden faced by Dr. King as the face of the Civil Rights movement. When necessary, however, the actor releases a crescendo of oratory to make both the crowds in front of him and the audience in the theatre shiver with moral and civic outrage. We are also given glimpses into a tense and uneasy personal life. The moments of doubt, marital instability and loneliness help to humanize a man that has, rightly so, become a giant of history. Unfortunately, both the scenes of the man at his most operatic and his most desperate are all too few and the viewer is left wanting much more. More story. More history.
While audiences are introduced to the main characters, those working with Dr. King as well as his closest friends, few other personalities are fully developed. As the counterpoint to King’s activism, the character of President Lyndon B. Johnson stands as an obstacle to change. He is willing to work with Dr. King, but on his own agenda and only incrementally. Again, we as an audience are not given adequate details as to the nature of his efforts in Washington and, therefore, can only assume he is something of a waffling opportunist. Not until he is pushed will he act. This makes for good movie conflict, but I imagine historians might have room to quarrel. Other historical figures make merely caricature-type appearances. J. Edgar Hoover, as the director of the FBI, plays the ominously threatening suit and tie who blithely offers to keep Dr. King silent for good. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, is given more of an opportunity to show his true colours, but he truly seems to be a one-dimensional person. No single person is provided with enough background information to establish their motivation for action and this lack means the audience struggles to really empathize with any of them.
A pervasive feeling of thinness haunts the film. The occasional short-cut in storytelling is forgivable, but Selma seems to be leveraging the good grace of an audience that, perhaps not as well as it should, knows the basic elements of the Martin Luther King story. The white Southerners are all painted with the same racist brush. The northern “Yankees” who respond to a summons and travel to Alabama are saccharine and naive. No element of the story is really given its due development and this is disappointing, since the film does give you a glimpse into a true milestone of American history.
While it is becoming apparent that Selma is not likely to receive much love from any of the major film awards this year, I don't believe this cheapens what the film does achieve. Selma does what any attempt at creating art does and that is point to something larger than itself; a universal truth perhaps is signalled, or a metaphorical signpost planted in the sands of time pointing to significant moments in our history. In this case, both. Selma is at once teaching a new generation about the realities of a decade that saw immeasurable courage displayed by thousands of men and women against powerful and determined people, while also reminding audiences that no country, neither the United States nor Canada, can claim that we have solved our problems with race relations. Events in Ferguson, Missouri, or Winnipeg, Manitoba or all over North America for that matter, make it tragically clear that 50 years may be a long time, but it has not been long enough to heal our wounded nations. If reliving the triumph of Martin Luther King helps today’s audience understand our own time a little better, then I recommend Selma to everyone.