For better or worse, much ink has been spilt over the treatment Selma metes out to president Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson): that of a hinderer more than a helper of the struggle for civil rights in 1960s America. As always, that focus mistakes the forest for the trees: what is really interesting about (black American director) Ava du Vernay's film is not so much what it says about the relationship between races at a time when the Southern states were still segregated in spirit if not in the word, but how it depicts what was going on within the African-American community itself.
Selma makes visible, in a way very few about the struggle have, just how politically strategized the civil rights was, how it was as end-driven as any political or election campaign was - how the movement triggered by the 1964 bombing of a church that killed four innocent children was hijacked for a greater, wider end. It does not pretend that the leaders - any leaders - were perfect, saintly paragons of virtue; it prefers to present them as flawed humans, canny political operators in the service of a cause that just happened to be righteous.
In so doing, Selma brings a welcome complexity into a subject far too often reduced to inspirational bromides or simple good-vs-bad manicheism. The passage of laws effectively ending unwritten segregation in the South is presented as scrimmage between an establishment defense juggling many different needs, and an activist offense fed up with not being prioritized enough. At the heart of it lies David Oyelowo's fiery yet ambiguous Martin Luther King - portrayed as a man who asks himself if what he's doing will ever yield results, but who also will dispassionately strategize to make sure his work is maximized; a man aware of the power of the media to galvanize a movement, as much as he is aware of the trade-off between public sacrifice and personal quiet.
What makes Selma rise above the fray as well is the way Ms. Du Vernay shifts elegantly between the "big picture" and the "little picture", between close-ups of the key personalities involved and pull-outs to explain the context surrounding the events. The film is not all King all the time, and not even interested in making him into a hero he most certainly didn't feel like; rather, it's an ensemble piece where the legendary leader is much more of a lightning rod around whom everything revolves, giving breathing space to all involved to create characters in just the briefest of scenes.
It's harder said than done, and to be honest Selma - extensively rewritten by the director from Briton Paul Webb's original script - doesn't always escape the trap of the well-meaning historical pageant (there are simply too many characters entering and exiting for anyone to keep track of). But it keeps to a much more interesting point of view than most works dealing with the social politics of sixties America - an intellectual, thoughtful point of view that doesn't preclude emotion but rather factors it into a political calculus, that embraces doubt and uncertainty as integral to the risk-taking involved in any public movement.
United Kingdom, USA 2014
Cast David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey
Director Ava du Vernay; screenwriter Paul Webb; cinematographer Bradford Young (colour, widescreen); composer Jason Moran; designer Mark Friedberg; costumes Ruth E. Carter; editor Spencer Averick; producers Christian Colson, Ms. Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner; production companies Pathé Productions, Harpo Films, Plan B Entertainment and Cloud Eight Films in association with Ingenious Media and Celador Films
Screened January 9th 2015, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)