Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson and Oprah Winfrey
Selma, Ava DuVernay’s stirring, forceful chronicle of the campaign for equal voting rights in Alabama, is one of the great political dramas in recent years. Its greatness lies in its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of that struggle on all levels, from frustrated but determined residents of that Southern town to the activists who flocked there hoping to force a reluctant president to act.
The horrifying scenes of police brutality during Bloody Sunday that were broadcasted on TVs around the world are ferociously recreated here, and informed by the raw, intimate stories of the brave men and women involved in that march. DuVernay wrests those historical images from the past and creates a totally immersive and shocking sequence here. The Edmund Pettus Bridge becomes shrouded in a thick cloud of tear gas as police smash, whip and otherwise brutalize the peaceful demonstrators.
In an interview with NPR, DuVernay discussed how the movie’s sound design helped enhance that brutality:
The sound design for that bridge sequence is something I’m very proud of. And it’s just about this kind of sensory immersion putting you on the bridge throughout the film whenever a body is broken — a black body, a white body — whenever there’s any kind of violence to the body, sound becomes critical.
We spent a lot of time, believe it or not … trying to perfect which sound I wanted to choose for when a baton hit the body… Because I think what we were trying to do with this whole film is to just elevate it from a page in your history book and really just get it into your body — into your DNA.
A big way DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young lift the movie out of the history books is through the use of close-up. One of the movie’s most affecting sequences involves an elderly caretaker named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempting to register to vote. She is a quiet, proud woman who is ruthlessly humiliated by the county clerk when she tries to submit her registration. DuVernay plays the scene very close, hovering the camera over Winfrey’s weary face as she answers the man’s ridiculous questions.
It’s much quieter than Winfrey’s other big scene in the movie, which has her smashing a sheriff in the head while he is beating up a young man. She is tackled to the ground by several officers, and again DuVernay keeps the camera very, very close as her head flails back and she screams. In the next scene, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) sees a black-and-white image of Cooper struggling with police on the front page of a newspaper. By keeping the camera close, DuVernay helps balance Paul Webb’s script, which expertly and succinctly weaves together conflicting views within the movement while also illustrating the broader, more overt evils of Southern racism.
Selma oscillates between those inner-movement dynamics and Martin Luther King Jr.’s attempts to convince President Johnson to act on voting rights. When King (David Oyelowo) arrives in Alabama after failing to convince Johnson, he is greeted by a white man punching him in the face inside a government building. Not long after, he engages in a tense conversation with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community (SNCC), who believe King is somewhat of a celebrity attempting to gloss over their grassroots activism.
Oyelowo plays King as an expert tactician, a man aware of his public image who attempts to use it in ways that will put a national spotlight on causes that he champions. After he witnesses the horrors of Bloody Sunday on TV like so many other Americans did, he calls on people from around the country to join him for a second attempt at marching across the bridge. That march, like much of the rest of the movie, oscillates between close-ups of individuals’ pensive, determined faces and shots of the larger group.
There has been a lot of discussion about the timeliness of Selma’s release, which came after months of protests and disturbing images of police brutality in Ferguson and New York City. In an interview with Deadline, Bradford Young discussed the timing of the film’s release.
Someone asked Ava at a Q&A, ‘Is this film timely?’ She said, ‘It’s always going to be timely, because times haven’t changed for us.’ When you think about it that way it’s not about being timely, it’s just highlighting our continuous struggle to be human beings in the world.
With Selma, DuVernay has made an intimate epic that passionately embodies the spirit of the civil rights movement while also telling stories of personal triumph and tragedy.