You might think making a film about real-life events would be easier than making up a story from whole cloth. After all, your script is already written for you, and your presumptive audience already knows — and is presumably interested in — your story. But in fact, making a film about historical events adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult art form. What at first look like advantages turn out to be liabilities. If you're telling a story about the life of a famous person, where do you begin and where do you end? Your subject is famous, so everyone knows what she or he looks like. How do you find someone who looks enough like that famous face, who can act as well? Movies are carefully controlled flows of information, but real life is big, messy, and totally unconcerned with how many characters it has to introduce to an audience in the first 20 minutes. And audiences who care about your subject will have very strong opinions about how things ought to be, and woe be unto you if your interpretation is different.
The filmic battlefield is littered with failed attempts at historical biographies, which make the list of successes, such as Spike Lee's Malcolm X, James Mangold's Walk the Line, and Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page, all the more remarkable. And to that list of successes we can now add Ava DuVernay's Selma.
Former publicist turned director DuVernay, who was the first African-American woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival, set the difficulty level at "expert" for her third narrative feature. She wanted to illuminate the character of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., like Lee had with Malcolm X. But to avoid the pitfalls of the epic sweep of Lee's film, she chose, like Mangold's Walk the Line, to concentrate on a specific period from her subject's life: The 1964 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. And, like Harron had Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page, she needed a good actor who also resembled MLK. Choosing veteran English actor David Oyelowo to portray King may have been the smartest move DuVernay made in this production that's full of smart moves.
Like Spielberg did with Lincoln, DuVernay clearly wants to humanize King and bring his gifts of leadership into sharp relief. The film opens backstage at the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, as Martin and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) nervously prepare for his big moment. Later, in a kitchen in Selma, King goofs off with Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) organizers, and Oyelowo ably paints King's momentary joy in being just one of the guys.
But ultimately, King is alone, even as he locks arms with the throngs of marchers during the epic battle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The same tactical genius King displays when choosing to bait Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) into confrontation by surrounding his courthouse with protestors demanding to register to vote tells him that J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) will similarly try to isolate him from his closest circle. And yet, Martin is blindsided when Hoover reveals Martin's marital infidelities to Coretta. DuVernay handles the controversial incident deftly, actually getting laughs from the audience as Martin squirms under Coretta's gaze. DuVernay paints King as both wholly divine and wholly human; he was a man like you, which means you can rise to his level of greatness if you keep your eyes on the prize.
Beyond Oyelowo, Selma is populated with good performances: Tim Roth's portrayal of Governor George Wallace cuts to the bone, and Oprah Winfrey's turn as Annie Lee Cooper is short but indelible. As 82-year-old protestor Cager Lee, Harry G. Sanders shares a heart-wrenching scene with Oyelowo as he is called to identify the body of his son, who was slain by police.
Confronted with such an epic story, there's only so much complexity DuVernay can cram into the movie. President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is a conflicted figure, torn between his sympathies for the movement and the realities of Washington politics. But Wallace and Sheriff Clark are just mustache-twirling villains. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) appears briefly, apparently to give King someone to be jealous of, and is then assassinated offscreen. But these are minor missteps in the narrative minefield the director must traverse. In bringing together the personal, the political, and the historic, DuVernay has crafted a film that will be remembered and studied for years to come.