Of this year’s crop of Best Picture nominations, half of them are stories about the lives of real men: Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Chris Kyle, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Of the four, only King is not white. Selma (2014), which was written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay, is the sole representation of ethnic diversity in a white-washed year of nominations, but, even so, what a representation it is. The film brings us to an uncomfortable awareness of racism, discrimination, and how hard some among us have had to fight for equal rights and representation. In fact, if there is one thing we should take away from this film is that we should definitely not be comfortable when faced with injustice.
Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love and what we believe.”
Selma follows the life of Dr. King from his reception of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize until the completion of his march on Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. The switch from the award ceremony in Norway to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is jarring, much as it would have been, I believe, for Dr. King. As King and other notable civil rights activists, such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, work toward equal voting rights, they are continually passed over by President Johnson for other, more pressing things on his political agenda. In the end, it is the broadcasting of the march on Montgomery–a peaceful protest that is met by armed troopers–to seventy million people that catches the attention of the nation and spurs political action.
DuVernay’s focus on King as a person rather than a symbol gives us a more comprehensive look at one of the most notable figures of the twentieth century. King’s life, though highly influential, was not free of family turmoil or marital tension. The film raises consciousness through its emphasis on portraying King’s political, as well as personal, struggles in a society that would rather not give a face to those it marginalized, and it does so by only giving faces to those that matter in the fight against injustice. The white policemen and aggressors are faceless–there are no tight close-ups, no lingering camera pans. When we see the law enforcement assault an older man, or shoot a young one, they are interchangeable. There is nothing to distinguish one aggressor from another–all are the same in the face of brutality. It’s a powerful message told in a subtle way, and DuVernay delivers it masterfully.
Other than that, the cinematography is what we expect from a Hollywood film. Grand sweeping shots, emotional close-ups–it’s a traditional approach that helps ground the audience in a volatile culture. The costuming, also, gives us a quick and thorough view of a traditional deep Southern 1960s environment without removing us from the focus of the narrative. Even the short inclusion of Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel”, serves as a facet in bringing Selma to our screens. When King marches on Montgomery with thousands of supporters, it represents everything that the Civil Rights Movement stood for: bringing people together regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion. It’s a beautiful scene, one that resonates with a hope for humanity.
At the end of the film, President Johnson vows that “we shall overcome.” Is this the hopeful look forward that we need, or the one that we want? Fifty years after Selma, have we overcome? Perhaps the message that Selma conveys arrives at an opportune moment in the twenty-first century. With events like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson last summer, perhaps we need a film like Selma to remind us of what was fought for, and what was achieved.
Want to read more about the Best Picture noms? Click here.