reviewed by Tom-Tom
Whatever you’ve heard or in fact will hear (or read, rather) from me about this film, it’s not what you’re expecting. It’s neither a saintly anointing of one of the most important and influential Americans of the 20th Century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nor the demonization of his retractors or men and women who stood as obstacles to true civil freedom for all Americans. It’s not the idealization of the cause, either. I only mention this because director Ava DuVernay has done a very brave and ambitious thing here which may have cost her, as happened with the similarly unflattering and well balanced TV drama The Wire ,any Best Picture awards from the Globes or the Academy for that matter, but whose merits have achieved something mold breaking all the same.
The film opens unusually, with Dr. King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) dressed to the nines (uncomfortably for King who worries what “folks back home” would think of the populist King in such fancy attire) in anticipation of King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. This is shown in counterpoint to four young African American girls chatting away about whatever young girls did back in the 60’s when a terrible explosions sends them flying into the air sizzling horribly. To continue the immediacy of time and place, Oprah Winfrey, upon filling out a voter registration application, approaches the sneering civil servant who questions her “need to start a fuss” before questioning her civil right to submit the application through a series of incredulous questions concerning the Preamble to the Constitution, how many county judges there are, etc. She answers each query tasked to her with restrained, quiet dignity until they reach absurdity incarnate resulting in a large DENIED stamp to stain her application.
These three scenes explain much without the need for verbose exposition. This is 1965. Here is what true civil justice is up against. Enter Martin Luther King. From here on out, there are two ways to view King’s actions. On one hand, we may see him as flawed but calculating leader with firm and very well prepared resolve against the massive glacier of civil injustice with a well-meaning but ineffectual President with annoyingly cold feet. On the other…a cynic may choose to see him (as depicted in this film, anyhow) as a manipulative coward who lets others get pummeled (and indeed shot to death) by the police or racist mobs while he sits back and enjoys the TV coverage it gets finding just the right moment to appeal to the media. I find it very brave that director DuVernay, like Martin Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ before her, would seek to also show glaring imperfections in a figure so idealized in the public conscious as to brook no challenges even lest they be the truth. Going for broke, she also shows the positive sides of President Johnson and even, in one comment, the notorious Governor George Wallace.
The main story revolves around Dr. King and his associates attempting to get rid of the obstacles standing in the way of voter registration for minorities in Selma, Alabama as demonstrated early by Oprah Winfrey’s character Annie Lee Cooper. Peaceful attempts to register being met with violence inspires the civil rights defenders to launch a non-violent protest march to Montgomery. Their efforts at progress are stymied at all sides even from within as similarly goaled factions have different methods of moving forward.
I feel this is a polarizing film based on the aforementioned expectations one has going in to it. My initial reaction was disappointment especially after the 2nd March attempt where King prayed and decided to cancel it after it had already seemed that all would be allowed forward. Having not participated in the first march in which hundreds of African Americans were tear gassed and beaten fiercely by police riding on horseback, it seemed pretty odd of him to give up when he might possibly face danger. It reminded me, actually, of a scene from the aforementioned Scorsese film in which Jesus and his fellow revolutionaries head to the Jerusalem Temple with every intention of tearing it to pieces and possibly looting it and murdering the priests therein only to lose his mojo and whimper to his pal Judas, “Hold me, Judas. Hold me.” See it for yourself if you don’t believe me. After the film’s conclusion, however, I resolved that the “warts and all” depiction does Dr. Martin Luther King more honor than any idealization ever could. I realized the bravery of the filmmakers and understood their purpose, all the while listening to the fantastic ending theme “One Day.” I hope other biopics historical or not will have the same courage as Ms. DuVernay did when she set out to make this American Landmark.