Truth Marches On, by David Bax
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is the best 2014 movie I’ve seen so far. Now, that reaction may very well be bolstered by the recent events, mostly in St. Louis and New York, to which Selma’s particulars bear a striking resemblance. If that is the case, I’m okay with it. Because the seemingly chance concurrence of this film’s release with an uptick in the national dialogue only makes clear that this isn’t random or coincidental at all. The injustices that spurred Martin Luther King, Jr. to stand up in Alabama in 1965 are part of an unceasing continuum that passed directly through the lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The events of 50 years ago are, tragically, just as current today as they were then.
At the center of Selma is David Oleyowo’s performance as King but he’s surrounded by such other famous figures as Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), as well notable names like George Wallace (Tim Roth, perfect), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). At King’s side in the small Alabama town are important but less famous people, ranging from the future Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young (André Holland) down to a brief appearance by the soon to be murdered activist Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs).
These names are listed to point out that Selma is no mere biopic of King. More than that, Selma is not really a film about individuals at all but a moving portrait of ideals, community and how those things can nourish one another. By having a strong connection to the present day, DuVernay illustrates that humanity as a whole is a continuous organism and ideas are ropes of living matter that flow from person to person and from generation to generation. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength as a pro-peace manifesto is its resistance to cast any characters as pure villains, only as vessels of potentially positive change that haven’t yet self-activated. When President Johnson tells King the time isn’t right yet to push for voting rights reform, King admonishes him for the use of words like “wait” and “I can’t.” Later, when Johnson has come around, he says something very similar to Wallace. It’s not that Johnson is simply mimicking King. It’s that the ideas have taken root in him, become a part of him and changed him.
It’s heartening that Selma can maintain an air of hope despite depicting so many ills that parallel the things we have seen recently in our modern world. We see police pushing journalists away from demonstrations in a comparatively milder version of what befell Wesley Lowery, Ryan Reilly and others when they attempted to report on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. And in Alabama in 1964, black people who attempted to register to vote had their personal information published, just like female journalists in 2014 who were “doxed” for trying to expose the rampant and hideous sexism in the video gaming community.
DuVernay gets our ire up repeatedly in order to make clear what may be her most important point. King and those who stood with him believed fervently in non-violence. I was reminded of a line in a movie from earlier this year, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary: “The commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill does not have an asterisk next to it, referring you to the bottom of the page where there’s a list of instances where it’s okay to kill people.” Both McDonagh and DuVernay are trying to elucidate that pacifism is not the same as passivity. Remaining non-violent, no matter what, takes strength and conviction and it is very, very difficult.
These noble ideals are Selma’s raison d’etre. The film is not a biopic because it would be potentially disheartening to treat Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of a kind. He may have been the right person for the time to rush in and fill the leadership position necessitated by the solidifying of a movement. But it is our principles that motivate us as a global community. King may be gone but the things he did can be done again because the values he represented are still going strong. Selma may be the best 2014 movie I’ve seen but it’s a movie for all years.