She did it.
That’s the simple but accurate description of what Ava DuVernay has accomplished with ‘Selma’. The (still criminally) short list of Hollywood backed films about black history, where black characters are actually the centerpiece of the story, has another worthy entry. From the opening sequence which contrasts King’s Nobel Peace Prize winning speech to four little girls walking down into the church basement (and if you know black history at all, you know how that ends and you immediately get a lump in your throat), the tone is set.
The title makes it clear: this isn’t a complete biopic of King as Spike’s film was about Malcolm X. ‘Selma’ focuses on this key moment in time when Dr. King was a big enough name to routinely meet with President Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson, one of many great character actors in the film), but far from universally loved by the people who were holding up the status quo, or some of the young black students who were already wearing thin on the idea of ‘nonviolent resistance’.
I went to a screening where Ava and David Oyelowo participated in a Q&A following the film. When asked about his process, David talked about his experience on ‘Lincoln’ and watching Daniel Day-Lewis (very telling). To do an impersonation of a famous person, if you break it all the way down, is usually mimicry while amplifying a mannerism or a cadence, usually for comedic effect. What David does in this film is not impersonation. There’s more than enough in look and cadence so the audience knows this is Dr. King, but it’s deeper than that. And for what ‘Selma’ does, it should be. I researched this whole era as a teenager so no information in the film, whether real or used for creative license surprised me. But, if all you know of Dr. King is what you here one day in January every year, or every February, you…might get some new information. I like to believe between my film geekness and passion for history, I’ve seen every ‘big time’ portrayal of the man, but I’ve never seen Martin Luther King portrayed so human. So flawed. David got all the nuances right.
Award season? We shall see. Timely? Obviously. In my opinion, it’s Ava’s best film to date; if (American) audiences had any doubt David could be the leading man in the right role, let’s squash that now too.
Go see it.