It’s a warm, arid evening in Selma, Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. sits on a bench in the porch of a house writing a letter to his wife, Coretta. Days before, hundreds of people had lined up to march towards the neighboring town, Montgomery, in the fight for equality. Dr. King, at that moment, felt the burden of the fight, of the lives lost and pleads for normalcy in the act of that letter. But, there is no normal; there is only the moment.
Powerful moments like the one described compose Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma.” When civil rights activists marched down a bridge towards Montgomery, the camera illustrates the people within the march. The director wants you to know this, she’s pulling at your humanity, she knows the fight is over and this side has won. Now, she wants to remind you that the fight wasn’t easy. She places the camera over several of the anonymous marchers and manages to give each of them their own slice of soul and personality. It’s not just Martin Luther King out there, it’s the people behind him. Sure, the story centers on Dr. King, but the director sensibly tries to make the story about more than him, and it is. It becomes that.
The fight is as intimate and strong to the supporting characters as it is to the main one. Not just from a scriptwriting perspective, but also as a moviegoer, the battles between the police and the protesters are intimate in a way they aren’t in most battle scenes. The director dives right into the beatings and into the drama. These fights are not epic, but instead, the devastating reality that a nation had to go through to achieve its present.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s character is complicated in the film. The director and the writer have made it their task to display not only the obstacles that life threw his way, but also the obstacles that most men have to overcome to truly become great themselves. King’s currency is drama, drama he uses as power to manipulate the president into creating legislation for the black vote. But, the drama comes through the pain of others suffering and coverage from the press. King prides himself on peaceful protests, but are the protests really peaceful when ultimately the outcome one seeks is violence?
The answer, for DuVernay, is no. This fight for equality was not peaceful. It was won through blood and loss, not by love and God, although for the film, there is clearly a God. He hovers over King’s head as he preaches in the church in countless scenes, and one understands the message. These people are protected. Even the death here is redeemable. The film makes you want to feel that kind of faith.
The film is biographic in color and form, but the director has deep artistic tendencies, and the way she creates and organizes her shots and blocking don’t feel like reality or biopic, but rather a tone poem of humanity. It’s visible when the camera sways left and right as Martin Luther King rallies his people following the death of one of them after a peaceful night march. It’s there when King finishes addressing his close group of friends after a march gone wrong, when the camera cuts to a shot from the roof, and King sits alone in the middle of church rows, everything around him the color red. It’s there at the end of the film, when King gives a passionate speech, and to the right of him is a black woman dressed in blue and to the left is his wife in red, signifying the reach of America.
This weekend people will spend their money at the box office supporting Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” but it seems the movie that truthfully wants to praise American Freedom is “Selma.” The fight was tough yes, but our America won out in the end.
words_ juan bisono.