The Man in the Mirror
by Michael Koresky

Dir. Ava DuVernay, U.S., Paramount Pictures

In film conversation, the word biopic has become an automatic indicator for something paltry and hackneyed. This widely held perspective implies that narrative cinema is an insufficient medium for telling the truth, or even an approximation of the truth, especially when it comes to the dreaded Great Man tale. Our dubiousness hasn’t been made in a vacuum, of course, understandably forged from decades of based-on-true-events stories boiled down not to their essences but to a few soupy bones. Even if we accept the biopic on its own deficient terms, we still enter warily. Much discussion of this genre revolves around whether a film mythologizes or, conversely, “humanizes” a person—Gandhi or Hitler, Marie Curie or Richard Nixon—who is otherwise a history-book abstraction. But either way we are forced to confront basic philosophical and ontological issues: taking a broad view we must acknowledge that cinema is the only medium that can accomplish the kind of physical resurrection that makes the biopic such a powerful, intensely felt, and even historically valuable form.

Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which puts an actor playing none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center, especially invites instant caution and doubt from viewers. Other than a handful of relatively timid made-for-television movies over the years, no films have dared make the Civil Rights leader the main character. Perhaps this is both because it’s risky to tread such sacred ground and because the accomplishments of this great man are so clear, documented, and impossible to complicate that it invites potential dramatic inertia. One cannot and should not endeavor to take the leading American humanitarian activist of the twentieth century off his pedestal; he needs to stay there firmly for all future generations. So then what does a Martin Luther King, Jr. film need to be about, and what should it make us think and feel? And alongside these concerns, what does it mean to viewers today to see a living, breathing, thinking, moving image of King up there on the screen?

DuVernay so smartly and successfully answers all of these questions with Selma that one feels an almost constant sense of relieved exhilaration while watching it. It’s a cathartic film, for all the right reasons. Reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in the way it limns the edges of its central great man by intensely focusing on practical matters—how, not just why, he forced and instituted political change—Selma is more procedural than biopic, although it doesn’t shy away from attempting nuanced, human portraiture. It’s clear from the start that DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb are aware of the discussions around the much-derided genre and the importance of finding that middle ground between admiring tribute and vivid, eye-level dramatization: our first image is of a nervous King (David Oyelowo) practicing a speech in front of a mirror and fretting about his choice of necktie. His wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), is there to assist, and the scene establishes a tone of hushed intimacy that pervades a film that’s about the importance of grand gestures. The small swiftly gives way to the large: the speech he’s rehearsing is for his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance in October 1964. Though this is a mere prologue to a tightly concentrated narrative that takes place largely over the course of a handful of weeks a few months later, it’s an effective starting point, trying to place us in the approximate physical and mental space of a man who is in the midst of changing the world and trying to find the right words with which to do it.

As the narrative proper begins, King and his associates are preoccupied with locating the “ideal staging ground” for his next organized protest, following the transformative nonviolent movements against African-American discrimination in Birmingham and Washington D.C. He and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference members Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey), and Andrew Young (André Holland), with the help of Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), a cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a.k.a. SNCC (or “snick,” as it’s oft called in the film), alight on Selma, Alabama, a place that will serve as a prime example of the systematic, entrenched disenfranchisement of black voters. The film effectively dramatizes the racist and capricious methods by which African-Americans were kept from registering in an early scene depicting a county clerk rebuffing the efforts of Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, in a delicately drawn, self-effacing supporting role). The film’s power comes from the way in which it makes such seemingly tiny, personal moments like these synecdochic: Cooper’s experience is palpable and specific, but it’s also clearly, importantly, just one of many, many, too damn many. The thought of Cooper—and, crucially, the iconic Winfrey—unable to register, and thus kept from voting booths and from serving on juries, stokes our thirst for both justice and drama. By the time King arrives in Selma, against the strong recommendation of fair-weather ally President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, doing his befuddled best to work against pageantry), we are primed for the march toward righteous change, which is inevitable not because the narrative dictates it but because history does and did. DuVernay imbues the film with alternating currents of outrage and clear-eyed calm to make this inevitability dramatic.

While King and his compatriots search for the right ways to “raise white consciousness” and be heard, DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young are finding the right visual language for telling this story. The film’s look doesn’t feel derivative of any prior movie, nor does it rely on any kind of studied photojournalistic aesthetic. The filmmakers’ decisions are striking from the get go, from the choice of sun-dappled natural lighting—situating the film somewhere between earthly struggle and heavenly righteousness, which feels fitting—to the preponderance of profile shots, especially striking in Winfrey’s early scenes: never has this very familiar face seemed more tactile onscreen than when we are asked to look at it from a literally new angle. We also often see Oyelowo’s King this way, which emphasizes the actor’s physical transformation (a little extra chin waddle from the weight gain) but more importantly gives the sense that he is looking out on the world rather than that we are simply looking at or up at him. The film is not about idolizing King, but about better understanding how he saw and surveyed the world, and figured out how to make it a livable, humane place via political maneuvering.

Selma charts two paths. The first is a literal, detailed one, toward Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—a fascinating choice for the film, and a trenchant one, considering the continued disenfranchisement of black and other minority voters throughout the country. The second is a more abstract one, which endeavors to move the viewer toward a better understanding of history via proximity to its players. With his uncanny vocalization and vulnerable empathy, Oyelowo makes this proximity gratifying and intensely beautiful. When, in the lead-up to the first Selma protests, he calls Mahalia Jackson in the wee hours of the morning and requests that she sing to him over the telephone line (“I need to hear the lord’s voice”), we are moved to tears not just because of the power of Jackson’s—or actor Ledisi Young’s—voice, but because Oyelowo’s eyes are transparent pools of fear and hopeful longing as he receives the sound. It’s the quiet prayer before the storm, the first thundercrack of which is a sit-in in front of the steps of the county court house—“a citadel defended by fanatics,” says King—where the voter registration office resides. In this and the increasingly intense standoffs in the coming days, including the galvanizing “Bloody Sunday,” when peaceful, unarmed protestors marching two by two across the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge were viciously attacked by police (some on horseback) with billy clubs, whips, and teargas, DuVernay proves herself an effortlessly potent filmmaker not just of confidential encounters but also large-scale battle scenes.

Selma, like the best procedurals, has a pleasing cause-and-effect structure, but that doesn’t mean we should take it as easy or mollifying entertainment. This film asks for our attention and contemplation. It’s not incidental that near the beginning DuVernay inserts—in jarring, searing fashion—a dramatization of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls: an inciting event in the battle for Civil Rights that is not contemporaneous with the events of DuVernay’s narrative. Such a moment keeps horror ever-present; the film is not here to make us feel as though the struggles of the past are simply in the past. At the same time the film is also too sophisticated to be a “call to action.” It’s about the tides of history, and the beauty and terror of being caught in them. It may seem to some a fool’s errand to try and put us in the room with a man such as Martin Luther King, Jr., but I for one was pleased to make his acquaintance.