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'Selma' brings a fresh perspective to MLK, the biopic, and counters Oscar-bait expectations

"Selma," Directed by Ava DuVernay
(Atsushi Nishijima / Paramount Pictures)

Around Oscar season, critics start telling you what you must see, isolating the films they deem necessary. There's the overblown sense that if you don't watch the film now, right now, then your existence as a consumer is forfeit and a personal affront to the shared pop cultural progress of our society. Most of the time, the only downside to missing one of these awards-baiting issue dramas is feeling mildly out of the loop around the water cooler, and even then, you still know the deal because there's a stylistic standard for this kind of picture. It usually relies upon of-the-moment histrionics mixed in with a self-serious tone that, 10 years later, leaves you with something forgettable. Remember "Crash"?

Ava DuVernay's "Selma" isn't like that. It's a film about the past made more vital and pressing by the tragic nature of the present. Like the best biopics, it doesn't strain to tell the entire story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, only the most relevant chapter to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama over black voting rights.

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We meet King (David Oyelowo) in a quiet moment of intimacy shared with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) as he practices his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. In another (lesser) film, this structural decision might seem to try to tell us all we need to know about King—that he is a man of peace—but it's not the award that's lingered upon, but the private rehearsal that precedes it. The King of "Selma" is a storyteller first and foremost, an artist: his words his paintbrush, and protest his canvas. His primary audience as the film begins is President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and the two share a pugnacious, if mutually respectful relationship. The language King uses in his private conversations with the president plays like a dress rehearsal for the oratory work he does later in the film (in speeches brilliantly rewritten because the rights to King's actual words still belong to Steven Spielberg). When the picture of injustice King paints for the president isn't enough to sway Johnson, he must regroup and find a larger medium for the message.

While "Selma's" screenplay is credited to Paul Webb, a Brit in his sixties, it's DuVernay's uncredited rewrite work that powers these scenes with the unmistakable mark of a black authorial voice. From her depiction of the Birmingham church bombing to a quietly heartbreaking scene of Annie Lee Cooper (played beautifully by Oprah Winfrey) trying to register to vote, DuVernay doesn't plonk down wooden, scenery-chewing building blocks to give King a reason to ascend to storybook greatness. She gives us a man already world-renowned for his talents and an urgent, painful situation that could use his attention.

"Selma" accurately paints the systemic strictures placed on blacks trying to exercise their legal right to vote as the tipping-point issue for an upsetting number of injustices plaguing the national community, and from a dramaturgical standpoint, it makes a fine MacGuffin to center the narrative around. Once the president makes it clear he won't push down legislature to do away with these various roadblocks, King's hand is forced to orchestrate the march to Montgomery, and from there, the film is a powerful locomotive pointed toward the destination of change.

To this film's credit, it doesn't focus—like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" did—on one great man being swayed by those around him during a moment of history, but on an entire movement and its relation to one great man and his unique ability to transform the power of spoken word into the power of action. The supporting cast is stacked with exemplary performers such as Lorraine Toussaint and Wendell Pierce (what up, Bunk?) and their individual journeys play out like fully functional microcosms of King's own. In doing so, this take on the civil rights movement explores more complexities and depicts a startling specificity of hatred often glossed over by the rose colored Instagram filter of historical vagueness.

Today, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is sometimes unfavorably compared to the civil rights movement by moderate liberals who seem to prefer white supremacy's earlier, more gritty works, as if the atrocities of mid-century Americana hold some WWII-like beauty. Cinema tends to present this era with a sturdy veneer of "Gee, gosh, look how wrong we all were," like medical students dissecting a long-cured disease and not modern-day diagnosticians still scratching their heads over new symptoms. DuVernay's film keeps the grit, refusing to shy away from the horridness of that time while drawing a clear throughline to its current day counterpart. Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) has an arc that traces an atrocious path of Jim Crow hostility, a narrative that begins with the callous mistreatment of his family and ends, all too predictably, with his shooting at the hands of an Alabama state trooper. DuVernay shows every incident of hatred with the same damning tone, whether it's the sneering hate speech of Tim Roth's George Wallace or the physical violence of batons mercilessly cracking innocent skulls during the march. It's clear that the latter is merely punctuation on the former's sentence.

There may be some who squawk at one of the film's other main pursuits, that of humanizing King. The infidelity in his marriage is handled smartly, leading to one of the film's toughest but most important scenes, as Coretta Scott King wordlessly confronts her husband while an FBI-procured recording of the betrayal plays in the background. Ejogo deserves every ounce of award buzz she's garnered, as her on-screen work anchors Oyelowo's performance, their characters so inexorably entwined. In film, black characters are so rarely afforded the luxury of imperfection. They are usually either hoisted above as saints or dragged low as stereotypes, but, here, watching a husband and wife struggle through one of the worst things that can happen to a marriage while still running this enormous activist campaign is inspiring, not damning. The new golden age of television has given us white protagonists who are meth-peddling cancer patients, philandering advertising executives, and scheming, murderous political manipulators and audiences eat up their exploits in weekend-long binge-watching sessions, so no amount of extracurricular fornicating is going to take away from King's legacy.

The same detractors who turn a blind eye to the plight blacks face in America today regularly and facetiously invoke King's name in their wrongheaded counterarguments, but if it accomplishes nothing else, "Selma" shatters the white patriarchal campaign to transform MLK into a toothless caricature of turning the other cheek. This film's King is a human before he is an icon, a man before a myth, and that paradoxically gives him a renewed symbolic power. If King is Civil Rights Jesus, he's an unknowable, broken-mold singularity, but as a flesh-and-blood human with foibles and failings, he is all of us, one person using his gifts to change the world around him. That could be any of the ambitious youths currently using social media to finally achieve the true fruition of a dream King had so long ago. The film's conclusion settles down on a victory, but the historical context of the on-screen postscript is a grim reminder that there's no such thing as a happy ending. "Selma" tells a great story about one triumphant moment in civil rights history and the losses it took to get that win, but it doesn't nostalgically let us forget that this moment is just a chapter break in a longer war that still rages on today.

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