(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. In honor of Black Women’s History Month, we’re taking the opportunity to put a spotlight on black women behind the camera – directors who broke through systemic barriers to bring their singular perspective to some of cinema’s most intriguing works.)
Ava DuVernay‘s 2014 film Selma shouldn’t have packed as many surprises as it does. After all, doesn’t everybody already know about Martin Luther King Jr. and his remarkable life and work in the Civil Rights Movement? His march to Washington, his “I Have a Dream” speech, his participation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
Turns out there’s not only a lot more to know in a time when everything old is new again in the most heartbreaking ways. DuVernay is determined to not only remind us, but to get us to see the man behind the image. There were obstacles from the start, since King’s speeches are actually licensed – to another project.
So how do you get to know a man whose life and work involved speaking to truth to power, when you literally don’t have access to the words he used to speak that truth? In DuVernay’s case, you listen to a lot of his speeches, pick out the patterns, and just try to bring his words to life without using his exact words. Or in some cases, you just switch up it a bit, having King say, “Give us the vote,” rather than, “Give us the ballot.”
Just as important, you get an actor like David Oyelowo to play King, who is so incredible that his lack of resemblance to the man he’s playing barely matters from the first. In the film’s opening moments, Oyelowo stares directly at the camera as he seemingly gives his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, only to reveal him speaking to a mirror in a hotel room with his wife Coretta Scott King (a quietly powerful Carmen Ejogo). These first few minutes not only set the tone, but they tantalize, as Oyelowo masterfully remains recognizable as King, both as a leader and as a human being. Selma shows the difficulties of King’s solemn duties, and the respectability politics he must play throughout the Civil Rights Movement, constantly shifting from his stentorian public persona to a private, more relaxed one.
Indeed, the deeply layered experience that is watching Selma only increases with time. In an era of biopics, the film is unique in one respect – it’s actually the first major film to have King at its center, not just in a cameo or supporting role. The period of his life is also more unfamiliar, taking place mostly in 1965 when King was in Selma fighting for access to the vote by organizing a march from Selma to Montgomery.
Their pain, their deaths, feel less like a history lesson than a tragedy still unfolding.
Unlike other films about the time period, DuVernay does not allow us the luxury of believing that such hatred is a thing of the past. She’s here to give us what we need, not what we want, showing us the complexity of King’s work without losing sight of his work’s moral certainty. Nor are there any white saviors or lovable bigots who will be cleansed of their racism through the magical power of friendship. DuVernay begins with King and she ends with him.
That lack of reassurance also comes with a powerful reminder that Black people were always at the forefront of this movement, and there interactions are suitably complex. When King arrives in Selma, the local civil rights activists are somewhat hostile. They criticize him for courting attention, and King unapologetically agrees that this is a major part of his strategy. “The way our organization works is straightforward. We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist,” he explains. “And on our best days, our adversary helps us out by making a mistake.”
In other words? When the local authorities are brutal, it helps their cause by getting attention and putting civil rights on the front page. There’s a reason there is so much resistance to Black people voting. As the movie points out, those authorities are protected by an all-white electorate and juries who exonerate any defendant who is somehow charged for their crimes. People can’t serve on juries if they aren’t registered to vote.
Oyelowo’s outsider perspective also proves invaluable. Having been born and raised in the U.K., he grew up with an admiration for King without the iconic reverence so many Americans have for him. Perhaps that’s why he is able to so fully bring King to life as a human being, with all his actions, good intentions, and inevitable contradictions.
Then again, Oyelowo’s prior, seemingly unrelated roles seemed to perfectly prepare him for this one. “The Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863. I play a soldier in Lincoln who in 1865 says to the president of the day, ‘Maybe someday we’ll get the vote.’ And the same actor in 1965 is still asking a president for the vote,” Oyelowo mused in an interview with NPR.
That unfairness, and its inherent violence, is deeply present both on and off the screen. DuVernay’s direction doesn’t just allow to empathize with the victims of violence, both black and white, but share their perspective. Their pain, their deaths, feel less like a history lesson than a tragedy still unfolding.
The parallels could hardly be ignored, as Selma was released around the same time as Ferguson, and the movie’s cast wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to the premiere. In a time where dedicated activists are speaking their own truths to leaders who are often even less responsive, movies such as Selma feel more essential than ever.