There was no way I could leave this film to be summarized in a quick blurb on a monthly round-up. Selma is, hands down, the best, most incredible film I have seen all year. And here’s why you should drop everything and go watch it immediately.
*Spoilers ahead – read at your own risk.
I watched Selma last night and spent an hour in front of my computer screen, attempting to put into words how this movie made me feel. I ended up falling asleep on my laptop with nothing to show for it. This morning, I woke up and tried again. I don’t think there are words to express the power of this film, but I will try my best to describe why this movie is so important and so relevant and so impacting.
I have been following coverage of this film for months now, anxiously awaiting its release. I have read countless interviews with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo. I have heard them describe the project with passion, the years of work that preceded it, the patience and time it took until all the pieces fell in the right place and everything came together. This film was an uphill battle. And how perfectly does its struggle and triumph reflect the story.
A few weeks ago, I read about how the cast and crew wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts before the New York City premiere, posing in front of the New York Public Library with their hands up. I have had that image imprinted in my mind, their determined faces, their focused gaze, their solidarity expressing more in a simple movement than any rousing speech could. There is a scene early in the film, when MLK first arrives in Selma and leads a group to the steps of City Hall where the voting office is housed. The sheriff and other police stand on the steps barring their entrance. All at once, the people raise their hands behind their heads and kneel down, leaving MLK and the SCLC standing in the back. It’s a powerful moment in and of itself. But the second their hands went up, my heart skipped a beat, thinking they were going to adopt the “Hands up, don’t shoot” posture. Of course, I knew they wouldn’t but in that instance, that is the image that flashed through my mind. For a split second, I wasn’t watching a group of citizens in the 1960’s asking for voting reform. I was watching a group of citizens in 2014, my own friends, peers, and coworkers, asking for police reform.
Perhaps the most impacting scene (other than the shocking explosion of the church in the first few minutes) for me was the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson. I have to take a second and acknowledge the brilliant camerawork of the scene, the stillness and the pace of those seconds when the police officer throws Jimmy against a wall and pulls his gun. And then the ringing shot as the harsh noises of reality return with a bang, as Jimmy slumps to the floor and the officers run out. I don’t think I was breathing during the entire scene. When I saw the flash of silver from the gun and the cut to his young, terrified eyes, I wasn’t watching Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young man in the 1960’s killed for protesting his right to vote. I was watching Michael Brown. I was watching Trayvon Martin. I was watching Tamir Rice. I was watching horrifying events from this country’s past being played out in my own lifetime, on our news, on our watch.
The parallels in the movie are so stunning. This movie came out at exactly the right time it needed to. Had it been released two, three, five years ago… Had it been released earlier in the year, before Ferguson, before Eric Garner… Had it been another director, another vision… The story would have been fundamentally different, and the impact more so.
This is a film that stands strong in and of itself. It doesn’t need the parallels to reality in order to make its point.
But our reality needs the film to make its point. I hope people watch this film and realize that for all the struggle and all the blood and all the hard work by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who came before him and after him… That there is still much more to be done. That not only is racism still a significant issue, but its manifestation has not changed in fifty years. Police brutality and abuse of power. Denial of basic liberties and judicial rights. Corruption and obscurity of the truth.
The vision Ava DuVernay had for this film is the driving force behind its success. The pacing is perfect, the cinematography is beautiful, the sound of chaos contrasted with the use of silence is brilliant. The scene where Coretta Scott King confronts her husband about his infidelities was one of the most human scenes I’ve ever seen. The cold, hard silence. The lingering of the camera on their faces. Not a second too little or too much.
But the cast deserves a standing ovation as well. David Oyelowo is remarkable as MLK. The scene in the chapel for Jimmy’s funeral when he repeats over and over, “Who murdered Jimmy Lee Jackson?” as the last one turns into a plea. His voice breaks ever so slightly… Yet he continues his sermon strong and clear.
The final scene sees the people of Selma successfully completing their march to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands on the steps of City Hall delivering another passionate speech, as the people cheer and hold up signs and American flags. They hold up American flags. They proudly wave the banner of the country who has oppressed and beat them. Despite everything, they are still Americans. Proud of their country. Proud of their flag. They know how far they have come, and they know this country will one day give them what they and every other citizen deserves.
I remember reading in another interview with Ava DuVernay that she didn’t care about awards or accolades for the film. She had a message she needed to share, and all she wanted was to be heard.
This film certainly has a lot to say. I hope you listen.