About a year ago, on a Sunday morning, I drove to Minneapolis to pick up my daughter at the airport. I left Austin early so that I could go to the movie. I saw Inherent Vice at a multiplex, attending, as I remember, the 11:50 showing. At around the same time, Selma was playing on another screen. The lobby and corridors of the cinema were crowded with African-American people, obviously gathering for Selma after church. The Selma audience consisted of heavy-set middle-aged people, all of them well-dressed -- the women were bossy and voluptuous in their Sunday finery, many of them wearing big floral hats. The men were neatly groomed, their brawn gone to flab, wearing brown suits with brightly shined shoes. It was obvious to me that these were serious, righteous people, among the elect and, therefore, confident and, even, a bit outspoken. They occupied the space in a way very different from the scrawny mobs of teenagers come to see the latest vulgar comedy or horror film. Indeed, they occupied space with a nobility very unlike the shifty-looking and haunted cineasthetes, only a handful of us, gathered to see Inherent Vice. Contemplating those people come to see Selma, every one of them Black, I felt more than a little ashamed of my post-modern sensibilities, my superficial cynicism, my affected despair.
Selma (2014, Ava DuVerny) is like that audience -- sober, respectful, burnished, well-appointed and handsomely groomed. Although epic is scope, the film is tautly constructed, focusing on a few weeks in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson has determined that his War on Poverty is more important than voting rights for Negroes in the deep South. Accordingly, he pleads with Martin Luther King, freshly arrived from Oslo with a Nobel peace prize, to prioritize the Great Society before voting rights. A terrorist attack on a southern church has resulted in the death of four little girls and King is not willing to compromise on voting rights. He travels to Selma with the express intent of provoking violent confrontation with local police to dramatize the injustice of denying Black people the vote. True to form, the White locals brutalize King's non-violent protesters -- King has been warned to stay away from the initial attempted march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the first step in the advance of his forces on the Alabama State capitol at Montgomery, and he is not present when the peaceful demonstrators are tear-gassed, beat down by men on horseback, and clubbed. The images of the carnage are broadcast to the nation and galvanize an enormous public protest involving people of all faiths. During the second march onto the Pettus bridge, led by King this time, the Civil Rights protestors advance to the middle of the span where they drop to their knees in prayer but, then, withdraw. A few days later, after King has again met with President Johnson, the protestors are assured of safe passage to Montgomery and the fifty mile march ensues under the watchful eye of Federal troops. The film ends with King delivering an inspiring speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol while the sinister governor, George Wallace, lurks inside nursing his grievances. The movie is mostly hushed, focusing in large part on strategy meetings between Dr. King and his lieutenants. There is some violence but it is not aggressively staged -- DuVerny knows that the battle scenes are not the key element in this film and she keeps the action relatively low-key. There is considerable irony that many plot developments in this basically political story are narrated through titles appearing on the screen -- ostensibly, log entries in the FBI file created on Dr. King by the vicious J. Edgar Hoover. (Johnson connives with Hoover who loathes King to try to disrupt the Civil Rights' leaders family life by sending his wife, Coretta King, audio tapes of her husband in bed with other women -- this is the extent to the which the film acknowledges Dr. King's well-known philandering when he was away from his home parish.) By and large, the picture is fascinating and the acting, generally, flawless -- the African actor who plays Dr. King, David Oyelowo, looks and sounds very much like the famous leader. Much of the drama in the film arises from King's exhaustion and his concern that his strategy of non-violent protest, using the bodies of his demonstrators against the batons, dogs, and guns of the police, is too costly in terms the suffering endured by his supporters. The film is very good in portraying the fact that, although we know the outcome of the story, the people on the ground in 1965 couldn't predict the future and, in fact, had good reason to dread that they would be slaughtered. King's anguish in the face of this uncertainty is realistically shown.
The film is handsomely produced with superb photography by Bradford Young. Most of the images are a tiny bit dingy, underlit, even faded -- the interiors disclose the genteel poverty of the Black middle class in the early sixties. There is a specific art to lighting Black actors, particularly someone like David Oyelowo, who is very dark indeed. The camerawork is sensitive to this problem: many of the dark faces are beautifully rim-lit, with cheeks and sides of noses and brows glistening with light. The film's colors are earthy, muddy-looking greens and browns, and the décor reminds me, to some extent, of the half-malodorous, mostly familiar wallpaper and carpet and pictures and furniture that you might see in a movie by Terence Davies -- everything looks a bit shabby, well-used, but comfortable. The film's editing is a little jarring at times -- DuVerny has a tendency to show conflict by cutting across eye-lines and violating the 180 degree rule, but, by and large, the film is coherent and the editing clear. Because the film's focus is on politics -- that is pragmatic considerations and compromise -- the movie isn't as inspiring as many people might have hoped: it is too honest and too realistic to be particularly inspirational. There are a number of blunders, but none of them significantly damage the film: a scene between Malcolm X and Coretta King seems forced and questionable -- X says that he will continue to terrorize Whites with his rhetoric so that King's efforts will succeed as the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the Caucasian population. Oprah Winfrey is too instantly recognizable to be persuasive in any film -- here she keeps getting abused and mistreated and, even, beaten up and we have the sense that the whole Civil Rights movement could be perversely interpreted as securing justice for this famous celebrity. There is a long scene between King and his wife in which he halfheartedly confesses (more or less) to infidelity -- the scene is shot in the family house with a ridiculous tschocky featured in most of the shots; you spend your time trying to figure out the meaning of the knickknack and ignore most of the lugubrious lines spoken by the principals. Equally unfortunate is the film's decision to show "where are they now" credits over images of the movie's main characters during King's climactic speech on the Montgomery Capitol steps -- we read these lines attentively and end up paying little or no attention to King's speech. The first 45 minutes of the movie are its best -- in that section of the film, the movie's narrative is swift, sure, and interestingly elliptical. I particularly admired a scene where the activists enjoy a huge breakfast at the home of a female supporter -- the scene is natural, wonderfully realistic, and strangely poetic. This is a good and honest picture, nobly understated, but it isn't the shattering epic many people expected when the movie was released.