Ahem. “Faced with the overwhelming stubborn mule that is the American girth of racism and backward stagnancy, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) uneasily fuses together a coalition of the willing (and unwilling) toward showing America the full extent of its wrongs and doing whatever he can to pursue a greater right”. With a story like that, one would be forgiven for assuming all the hype around Selma boils down to a work of reigned-in Oscarbait, safe and streamlined and ready and willing to fall in love with its own saccharine self. It would seem this crowd-pleasing lull is the de facto state of the corporate biopic, flying high on easy, over-written drama and hagiography, indifferently filmed, edited, composed, and photographed, and resting almost entirely on the laurels of the main actor/ actress in the lead role.
There is nothing, and I mean nothing, like a “based on a true story” historical biopic and a popular lead actor/ actress to lull a film, and its director, to sleep. Released in late 2014, at one of the most pressing and pointed periods of racial tension and heated, boiling conflict in the modern era of the US, the thought of a work like Selma is exciting and invigorating. And the worry, the ever-crawling feeling that it may just be hope, is even greater. In this state of the world, if Selma was simply a work of moderate visual panache, it would be a godsend, but as we know, biopics like this, works about the “great men” of history with their great performances backing them up, are not the friends of “visual panache”. Prior to release, the fear that Selma was just another embalmed, wheezing biopic about the past, designed almost entirely to make the people of the present feel good and sufficient about themselves, couldn’t have been greater.
Low and behold: Ava DuVernay’s Selma is in fact a work of often exquisite visual panache, and it is absolutely not designed to make anyone feel good about themselves. And one month later, something seemingly no one realized before its release reveals itself quite clearly as a calling card for the film, a beacon of hope that should have suggested something stellar was lurking under Selma’s seemingly Oscarbait surface-level. This fact: it is photographed by Bradford Young. In a meteoric rise this past month with this and A Most Violent Year promising bold things to come, he has truly established himself as one of the go-to young cinematographers of his generation, and looking at Selma, it’s easy to see why.
Among his many achievements, he subtly lights the film with an elegant softness to infuse a hint of glowing myth into the mostly harsh tale, always keeping the bottom end of realist sharpness while still reminding of the grandeur of actions that we know still effect the present, but which we cannot truly say are of the present. The net result is a careful balancing act of immediacy and mystery, invoking a world of equal parts reality and artifice, bulleting this past into the present while also subtly suffusing the film with a reminder that we can never truly know everything of the past in a film. There is always (an often deserved) air of storybook theater to any work that tries to sell us history, and Selma is aware of this. It’s not quite the showpiece that A Most Violent Year was, but the man shows he can light a scene better than any American cinematographer working today. His short track record is impeccable, and when he signs his name on to a film, it means it will probably be something special (even if he is the only one making it special, although he knows how to choose from his directors supremely well).
Here, however, he is not the only treat. As bright a visual star is DuVernay herself, along with editor Spencer Averick, who soak the film with sharp, cutting edits and piercing, jagged angles to give the film a hurting quality that does the lion’s share of the work toward keeping the film from ever losing itself in the weepy tendencies of soft-hued prestige biopic filmmaking. Combined with the often brutal dialogue of the film, the filmmaking reminds that social change is a harsh, angry process of festering, combative argumentation and slowly, surely whittling away at one’s opponents with desperation. It’s a tiring film, always placing front and center the fists-and-claws, dragged-out quality of social change as a harrowingly perpetual conflict won not so much through grandstanding gestures as winding down one’s opponents through forceful, unending action. Many of the crowd scenes are edited together like a string of jutting perspectives counter-intuitively assembled like a tremulous concoction primed to explode. People who disagree are positioned at odd angles to look quite literally as if they are cutting through others around them, the wounds of their mental perspectives rendered physical by the visual perspective of the camera. People almost become their ideas, tearing away at one another with angular dysfunction and disagreement, ensuring that the audience never feels comfortable that all the participants have come to terms with one another.
The counter-intuitive editing also has another, more political effect as well: to reduce the extent to which this film is about Martin Luther King and to enhance how much it is about the movement he led. For a work nominally about the famed leader of civil disobedience, it is a film that affords him markedly little visual privilege, cutting to him as one of many voices and intentionally centering on the communal action of black men and women, reminding of both their agreements and disagreements. DuVernay cuts, far more frequently than to King’s perspective, to the faces of men and women who followed him, and who had voices of their own.
Even when King is at the center, as in a shot at the very end of the film that has formed the backbone of the poster, he isn’t alone, nor even the focal point of the frame. The poster-shot features Oyelowo from behind, lit with an aura of gravitas and importance. Yet our eyes dart to the multitudes of faces on either side of his perfectly framed head. His presence binds the screen together, as he spent his life binding so many, but it also cuts through the frame in a careful reminder that he was a cutting man, a person who brought people together even as he sharpened their individual perspectives. It is the presence of the many looking on at him, existing on either side of him and boxing him in between them, that “makes” the shot, giving it a burningly necessary visual symmetry that fills the screen around Oyelowo just as MLK himself was built up and positioned not as an individual, but as one major peg in a communal effort that granted him power and legitimacy, boxing him in while opening new options.
It is not for this reason that Oyelowo is almost never depicted alone, never seen without another person or persons in the frame, for his quest was not that of an individual, but of a community. At the same time, if it is a communal work, it is also a work about disagreement, especially within the black community, reminding that a collective doesn’t equate to sameness, and that many African-American men and women put differences aside to join a cause they felt was necessary; the visual nature of the film, that it captures many voices as a whole but also cuts between them with hard angles to separate and differentiate them, captures this tension between necessary similarity and pointed difference.
It is a markedly communal work, a visual gesture not simply for this community but against the years of biopics of (often white) men and women that privilege exactly the sort of individualist “great man” storytelling that has in the physical world seen complicated realities of class and race reduced to individual success stories and sinister acts of “blaming” individuals for social failure. The film, in its visual bones, rejects this idea, and it rejects the idea that King is a greater man than so many men and women who existed around him, whose voices we do not normally hear with burning zest. It is not only an exciting filmic gesture but a combative critique of other films and artworks that privilege individuals and ask that we focus on how “great” and how “special” they were. This is the sort of tepid storytelling that leads to both artistic hagiography and a culture that has placed predominantly white men up on a pedestal for centuries at the expense of the communities and social forces that drive history. DuVernay’s work is a reminder that change is a process of bitter communal argumentation and not individual savior, and it radical from both a political and filmic perspective for this reason.
Speaking of gritty argumentation and cutting barbs, so much of the discussion aroundSelma has taken the form of a critique of her depiction of LBJ. Portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, DuVernay has much less kind things to say to him than many have in the past. The common line is that she is dishonest, that LBJ was a champion of change and that his antagonistic drive in the film is manufactured. The common comeback: this is a fictional film that does not have to tell the truth. Fair and correct, but a further push is necessary. The fact is, plenty of evidence supports the claim that LBJ,and most major American politicians, are hesitant to social change. That this is a surprise or a shock is baffling, for their position as poster children for society and their need to please the status-quo loving masses all but demands that they cringe at activist change and instead focus on slow-going progressivism and so-called “respectable” democratic pragmatism that so often masquerades for passivity and pleasing the masses.
DuVernay can lie if she wants, but she doesn’t. In a culture where so many films privilege the work of “great man” individuals for instituting social change and shy away from depicting the much harder, more contested work of communal activists, DuVernay’s critique of LBJ here is not simply truth but necessary medicine. Decades of film history have mentally inoculated us, convinced us that our heroes are white individuals of a high social status who passionately demand for change to better the common man, and DuVernay’s work is an important reminder that this is not the truth of social change.
We may know LBJ to have signed legislation for progressive social change, just as we may know Lincoln to have done the same a hundred years before, and just as we may know Barack Obama to do so now. What we forget, and what DuVernay reminds us of, is that we privilege only this information because our minds are needlessly committed to a narrative of individualist storytelling. We do so because we are afraid of what it might mean if our so-called great men only act when they are pushed to, when communities of action demand that they do. DuVernay’s work hits this nail square on the head, pulling back the facade of individualist storytelling and, whether or not it factually exaggerates in the small scale, does so to tell a greater truth in the large scale: we’ve already had hundreds of films that lie to us by painting our presidents, our great white men, in an overly benevolent light. If DuVernay exaggerates certain small facts, it is for a greater truth, and it is a reaction to a much bigger, culture-spanning, film-history-subsuming American social lie.
This being said, her work, and in particular the script provided by Paul Webb is not perfect, for as hard as DuVernay tries as a visual storyteller she cannot fully escape the shadow of prestige biopic filmmaking. Typed text on the screen when there is a more nuanced, less intrusive way to show rather than tell is always a shame, and things are no different here. More problematic is the actual script, which veers sharply from great highs to great lows. Alas, those lows exist, and they are sometimes mighty for the film to handle. Too many of the secondary characters for instance, especially Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), are mishandled in favor of the dual focus on King and the whole community that follows him (DuVernay is, ironically, not as comfortable with gender as she is with race, perhaps at the behest of the script written by a white male). Even worse incidentally, is Lyndon Johnson, not a political problem but a narrative one. He often exists merely as an exposition machine filled to the brim with over-flowing dialogue designed only to speak to us, the audience, and not the other characters. He never seems a part of the film; more like an intrusion so that it can be said the work has at least one major white character of neutral disposition.
Yet, if the script occasionally falters, the filmmaking shines through. As does Oyelowo’s powerhouse performance as the de facto transfixing element of the film (which says a little too much about how we privilege actors over directors, editors, and cinematographers, for all three are as strong as Oyelowo here). Still, it’s a dynamic performance, composed like a sigh to capture a man undone by the weight gnawing at him and festering in his insides, but also vigorous and exposed and fleshy enough to burst and bubble and remind us that this is not merely a waxworks show but a living, breathing depiction of history. Oyelowo’s masterstroke, however, is that he is also sufficiently performative to suggest that we can never truly know who this man is in private. He suggests, as does the film, that the role of a public savior is tragic for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost that it the icy vice of public reception can sacrifice a public figure’s ability to ever have a private identity. Fittingly, Selma is a work that only very rarely depicts King alone, for we do not really know him alone. We know him as a public figure and the film makes the jarring conclusion, both communally empowering and individualistically tragic, that his soul as an individual, his personality in any capacity outside of the public figure he represents, can no longer exist. And when a large majority of the public viewing him at the time disavows him, this bears a mighty toll on a person, perhaps too mighty for one person to handle even with a community backing them.
At its core, if Selma is a testament to the past, it is also a startling call for the present. Make no mistake: this is a work about confrontation, and it is a deeply, fundamentally confrontational work, a piece designed to confront and raise cognitive dissonance about the present world. With so many socially progressive types today turning away from civil disobedience as an unnecessarily forthright gesture that overextends the argument and uses “non-democratic means”, DuVernay reminds that, at its core, most every social justice initiative throughout US history has been achieved by exactly this messy, forthright means pushing and pulsing and never letting the masses feel comfortable. So many conservatives in Selma critique King for putting his followers in danger, or for causing social disruption, or for not respecting the politicians trying to help him. So many make the same claims about today’s activists. DuVernay’s work is a trenchant, angry reminder that holding MLK up in the limelight and chastising the activists of today for being “violent and angry” will not do, for they act in his spirit, and he also pushed and prodded those who begged for quiet safety and reflection, for “respectful talking”. He too created tension by “putting people’s lives in danger”. Except it wasn’t him putting people in danger; it was the society he lived in. He was simply making things a little more corporeal so that people realized for once, and that is exactly what protesters today do when they block traffic (a note-for-note critique also labeled upon King time and time again).
Duvernay’s work is a reminder to those who ask for pragmatism, to those who look to protesters and activists as hurting their own cause by making the powers that be angry. It is a reminder that people who held social change back in the past used congruent arguments, phrased with an exacting and eyebrow-raising similarity. Her film is a reminder that, whatever role politicians and respectful discussion have in social change, politicians are only wont to listen when there is hurting going on, and when people like MLK and the activists of today are being angry, creating a necessary tension and difficulty and ensuring it pulses up into the air. It is a work about the gritty, hard-hitting, difficult, tough “stuff” of social change. It is, if nothing else (and it is much else, rest assured), a reminder that, if we wish to criticize protesters and activists today for “disrupting” or “putting people’s lives in danger”, we should be aware of the history of other white men and white women who have told black men and women what “not to do”. It is also sterling, riveting, sometimes frighteningly good cinema, and when it doesn’t receive the commercial accolades it ought to (especially in favor of other, far more tepid biopics), we should remember this most of all.