“It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Woodrow Wilson probably didn't use those words about The Birth of a Nation, DW Griffith's famously racist 1915 epic, but, like many apocryphal phrases, it has proved hard to shake from historical record.
It would be gorgeously neat to fling the same phrase at Ava DuVernay's study of a key incident from the civil rights struggle. Less stretching is required than one might have feared. Selma does occasionally bed down into expository sludge – such as when, too late in the day, Andy Young (Andre Holland) explains non-violence to a follower – but this is a film fuelled by impressive reservoirs of righteous anger.
Bradford Young’s camera is allowed to indulge in some bravura shots. Hagiography is dodged. Proper fear is summoned up. The film’s old-fashioned emotional surge accentuates the absurdity of it taking half a century for Hollywood to properly address Martin Luther King’s legacy.
Wisely, screenwriter Paul Webb has – following patterns set by Peter Morgan in The Queen and Frost/Nixon – decided to use the synecdoche approach to historical drama: one incident stands in for the whole.
The film begins with a skilful recreation of the infamous murder of four young black girls in Birmingham, Alabama.
Dr King has just received the Nobel Peace Prize and is now attempting to raise consciousness about the denial of voting rights throughout the southern states. He and his followers elect to focus on the town of Selma.
The script is good on the strategic thinking at play: for full exposure, the protesters require a sufficiently brutal sheriff and Jim Clark seems to fit the bill very horribly. A march is planned from Selma to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery. An initial attempt results in violent assault by the cops and, as the media gathers, King establishes the cause célèbre he desired.
David Oyelowo, raised in Oxford, delivers a surprisingly and persuasively low-key performance as King. Allowed only a few moments of oratorical epiphany (the film was, for complex reasons, denied use of the original speeches), Oyelowo is invited to emphasise the leader’s skills as a politician and negotiator.
The script, utilising an FBI attempt at blackmail, cleverly insinuates mention of his alleged sexual infidelities, but it is the decision to emphasise the collective nature of the campaign that does the most to repel accusations of hagiography. King’s celebrity is both a weapon and a potential inconvenience.
Most of the criticism from the truth brigade has been directed at Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson.
Heed the braying and you’d suspect the late president had been turned into a tobacco- chewing racist of the red-necked school. In fact, though definitely less helpful to King than the real LBJ, Wilkinson’s version comes across as a sympathetic figure who merely wishes to progress at a more measured pace.
His conversations with the notorious governor George Wallace (yet another Englishman, Tim Roth, in uncharacteristically restrained mode) offer incisive background on that Dixiecrat’s compromised populism: supporting the poor, but violently opposed to segregation.
All this noise and ferment is presented in a package that builds unstoppably to a moment of cinematic catharsis that, though unquestionably rigged, addresses the genuine terror that characterised life in the south for the average African-American.
For all that, Selma shouldn't really be a groundbreaking film. It is soft on the role on women in the struggle. The costumes are box-fresh. The storytelling is linear. The fact that it seems groundbreaking is more of a comment on Hollywood than on the picture itself.
It is currently being spanked at the box office by the reactionary American Sniper. Maybe a change isn't gonna come just yet.