Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay based on a screenplay by Paul Webb and DuVernay, depicts the struggle for voting rights in Alabama, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Although the film is about historical events, it has a topicality due to the recent undermining of the Act and the efforts to disenfranchise black voters in some states.
The script is highly didactic. Almost every scene seems to drive home a particular point. Many of the scenes consist of two or three people talking, in which they present contrasting points of view. This can be effective at times, but it becomes a drawback in the scenes between Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). The two of them sound so high-minded and professorial, that one wonders how they didn’t drive each other crazy.
Selma touches upon King’s complicated attitude towards violence. It makes clear that one of the aims of non-violent resistance was to provoke a violent response from authorities, in order to cause them to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The film shows King struggling with the possible consequences of this tactic. In one scene, he calls off a march -much to the consternation of his supporters – because he fears that the police have set a trap.
One thing I liked about Selma is that it doesn’t try to prettify anything. J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace are portrayed as being every bit as vile as they were. Some people have criticized the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), particularly its implication that Johnson got Hoover to try to blackmail King. However, we know that Johnson was not above playing dirty, and at the very least he was aware of Hoover’s hostility towards King, so one has to admit that this part of the film is at least plausible. (Fun fact: it was Robert Kennedy who ordered the FBI to spy on King and his associates.)
Selma is a timely film that everyone should see.