Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown
Selma begins with Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) very uncomfortable dressing in tux and tails. His wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) walks in, dressed to the nines, as he fusses, saying that he feels uncomfortable dressed for a formal occasion—all of his constituents will look at him in such finery and might lose faith that he could lead them in any sort of struggle, when their lives are so distant from such pomp. It's not the clothes that make him uncomfortable. It's the whole setting, even if he is being awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Selma, the film of the Civil Rights peace marches of 1965, is revolutionary in many ways: looking at the politics of social change and how events spark and accelerate it (Lincoln touched on this, too); it de-mythologizes King, showing the man—the passion for his cause, but also the conflicts that stymied his efforts, both personally and as a catalyst for change*; and it is shepherded, produced, co-written, and realized by a woman (we're not quite so enlightened where that isn't so commonplace it doesn't require mention...but we shall eventually overcome).
To the first point, there are as many minutes spent in "meetings" for strategizing as are spent in the streets actively carrying out the marches: King meets with the current-president, Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in a tense meeting in the Oval Office—King pushing for action over minority voting rights, where Southern officials actively are keeping African-Americans from voting, and thus having any sort of voice in politics or serving on juries; Johnson pushing back, concentrating on his War on Poverty goals, deflecting any voting legislation as being "too much too soon;" both sides have confab's—the do-gooders, even the racists, all trying to find power in numbers.
But events propel things faster than Johnson, King, or anyone else can anticipate—the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is bombed killing four children—and without enough blacks on the voting roles, the jury against the Klansman accused of the murders would be only comprised of whites. It is a crime that can not stand, but the chance of any unprejudiced justice is nil. And so King, after much deliberation with his lieutenants, decides that Selma, Alabama is where his Southern Christian Leadership Conference will stage demonstrations in the streets, marching for voting rights, something opposed by all the politicos in Alabama (including Governor George Wallace, played, rather sneeringly, by Tim Roth), Sheriff Jim Clark, and, also, ironically, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, who see King as something of a carpetbagger, wanting to move in and undermine their own efforts. With so many conflicts, so many factions—even in his own fragmented coalition—it is amazing that King was able to focus and keep his "eyes on the prize."
The film is top-notch. Lee Daniels was attached to direct, but when he left to direct The Butler, director Ava Duverney took over, starting from scratch, doing a complete re-write of the script, and overseeing production...on a film that's larger in scope than the low-budget film she's done previously. At the same time, the film couldn't be more personal, framing the large events of the marches with intimacy...giving us a few precious moments with the children talking girlishly as they descend the church stairs before an explosion fills the screen, the carnage happening out of sight, or the candid conversations of various factions behind closed doors or in hushed tones, or the Kings sitting in silence listening to the embarrassing tape sent to Coretta by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker, not precisely convincing): "I know what you sound like, Martin.."
That is the real strength of Selma—not the big set-pieces, the marches, the recreation of "Bloody Sunday" (the 1965 version—type that into Google Search some time, and see how many of them there are), although they're handled very well. It's in showing the yin and yang of social change. Sure, it's a big thing to march in the streets, to stir up the blood and the thoughts, but social change really comes about in the changing of singular attitudes—one mind at a time. It seems like too slow a process to those in turmoil, but the changing of minds does not happen one to one, arithmetically, but geometrically, multiplying as it goes. It's not the logic of an attitude that becomes aware of the need of change, it is the feeling of it when "that's the way it's always been done" falls away to "why is that the way it's always been done?" When past is tossed away for a more humane future. Time, and truth, don't just march on, civilization does, too, if sometimes at a maddeningly slow pace.
Keep the faith.
* What is fascinating to me about King (beyond his ability to motivate a crowd and stick to his non-violent ideals) and this presentation of him is the notion that his murder—martyrdom, if you will—deified the man. Now, he's a National Monument, a National Holiday, and quoted and referenced by everyone of every political ideology trying to score some political points, even those who would—if he had lived—be just as vociferously condemning him and trying to bring him down...if he had lived. It's as if his assassination let them off the hook for trying to destroy him. But his words—and, more importantly, his actions—continue to inspire, even when co-opted by those who would, most assuredly, have opposed the living, breathing activist. Too bad no one came to their senses when he was alive. History tends to do that.