Selma would be a good movie in any year. It is directed with elegance and power by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), it is dynamically acted, and it was handsomely shot by cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year). It closes in on Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) during the window of the Selma to Montgomery marches, which led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, showing him as a great man but a human one, one with doubts and very justified fears. It depicts how difficult it is to effect change, and portrays nonviolent protest as a means of forcing the hate and brutality of others into the light, sometimes at a terrible cost.
It'd be a good movie any year, but given the events of the last few months, it's now an almost unbearably resonant one. I walked out of my Selma screening and into a night of demonstrations about the Eric Garner grand jury decision, protests that filled the streets of New York and cities across the country. Garner and Mike Brown are only the most recent and high-profile cases of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers who were then cleared of any wrongdoing, and they're indicative of a deeply disturbing trend finally generating broader outrage.
We're 50 years past the era of Selma, which begins just months after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, but race remains a stunningly divisive point in our country, and the equal rights, treatment, and opportunity that are in theory granted to everyone continue, in practice, to be denied on the basis of the color of your skin. Selma is a vivid reminder of how much our national narrative about race differs from the actual experience of being a black American, then and now, and how endemic racism and prejudice will be left as is, unless they're exposed and brought to wider attention — attention that must be battled for and fought to achieve.
Here are the hardest scenes in Selma to watch: The one in which young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is shot at close range by an Alabama State Trooper (the shooter, James Bonard Fowler, would later claim self-defense even though Jackson was unarmed, and a grand jury did not indict him). The one in which Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also one of the film's producers) gets thrown to the ground by Selma Sheriff Jim Clark's (Stan Houston) men at a protest in front of the county courthouse. The one in which hundreds of marchers are gassed and beaten by troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, while stunned viewers watch on the news. The one in which Unitarian minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) is attacked by malicious locals targeting the outsiders who've come to support King.
These sequences are painful not just because of what they depict, but because of how they can echo contemporary events — particularly in the case of Jackson, in which the horror of the moment briefly slows time, the quiet giving way to his mother's screams of shock and grief. There are other scenes that evoke the present day in more maddening ways, like in the exchanges President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has with King, in which he treats the protests as a matter of political inconvenience rather than moral imperative, and in which he suggests that the responsibility for the people who get hurt in the protests is on King, rather than on the ones perpetrating the violence and the politician who refuses to send troops in to stop it. Then there's a smirking Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, drawling out messages of racism to a supportive crowd as if he's only being reasonable.
Selma is bound to attract comparisons to 12 Years a Slave, given the year-end timing and its exploration of another grim chapter in American's racial history. But the better comparison would be Lincoln, which, like Selma, is a film that avoids the comfort of triumphalism in favor of showing the work and maneuvering King, his team, and his supporters do. DuVernay frequently frames King from behind, the camera's gaze aimed at the back of his head and shoulders. It emphasizes his remove — King's aware of the kind of symbol he's become, whether giving an impassioned speech or getting punched by a waiting white man when checking into a hotel. He and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) discuss his self-consciousness about dressing in a way or owning things that would make them look above his followers.
King, as played with watchful subtlety by Oyelowo, is engaged in a calculated, high-stakes, perilous war of politics and public relations, and Selma shows him speaking frankly about the brokenness of a system in which white officials, jurors, and politicians get to mete out justice for everyone. Johnson's part of that, acting only when events get too ugly to be ignored, trying to co-opt King while hanging on to him as the peaceful alternative to someone more militant. "What he needs to do is get on board with what we're doing!" he barks to his advisor Lee C. White (Giovanni Ribisi) in private, but King has no interest in joining a war on poverty when the people he's representing are blocked from registering to vote, so can't be represented, and can't be part of a jury.
King is just as up-front about how the Southern Christian Leadership Conference campaigns work — they need press, they need cameras, and they need monstrous racists who will do terrible things that will be broadcast around the country and world. He freely tells James Forman (Trai Byers) that there was insufficient drama to what they did in Albany, because the sheriff didn't make the kind of mistakes they required. He lauds the work Forman has been doing to "raise black consciousness" but notes that he's focused on "raising white consciousness," using the abuses inflicted upon protesters to insist attention be paid, writing demands in the blood that's shed, with specific goals in mind each time.
DuVernay wrote the film's intelligent script with Paul Webb, and has brought together a tremendous cast to fill out both the major and minor roles — Orange Is the New Black's Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Niecy Nash, Alessandro Nivola, Wendell Pierce, The Knick's André Holland, and Dear White People's Tessa Thompson are among them. Ejogo has some nice business in scenes that highlight the strains King's activism has put on his home life and his marriage. But Selma is foremost about the difficult work that was done to shake people out of complacency, to make them stand up and join the fight. It doesn't have room or any need to sentimentalize, and despite the difficult history yet to unfold — recounted in text on-screen in the final sequence — it doesn't jerk tears. Instead, it raises goose bumps, as that crowd finally marches over the bridge and into the future.