Selma opens with a scene of the Kings (Martin Luther, played by David Oyelowo, and Coretta Scott, played by Carmen Ejogo) discussing whether or not his ascot tie is “right” for a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance ceremony. Armond White, in his otherwise brilliant review of Selma, argues that “to start with Nobel recognition keeps Selma within the shadow of Official (white liberal) approval rather than portraying the movement in terms of authentic domestic (meaning American and African-American) values and goals.” White seems to be ignoring the importance of the Kings’ argument, with Martin Luther protesting that such a tie distances him from the people he is fighting for. It’s a great opening scene because it promises something nuanced—a depiction of the struggle between what White deems “official” approval and authenticity as experienced by one of the major players.
On one hand, this is exactly what Selma is, as its primary conflict is between and MLK and President Lyndon B. Johnson, who is gradually swayed into making what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a priority. On the other, the film takes a simplified approach to this conflict. The initial meeting between King and Johnson is promising, with Johnson coming across as a concerned man but a busy politician and the eloquent King finding the words that will linger in the president’s mind. Later, the appearance of Malcolm X, met with skepticism and even anger by King, seems to promise a complex movie about various forms of progressivism, from King’s nonviolent activism and protesting to X’s “by any means necessary” to LBJ’s political game-playing and compromising. It is even stated explicitly that when Malcolm X is in Selma his “militant” attitude will make King seem all the more appealing. For more than just a moment, Selma seems like it will be complex look, devoid of easy conclusions and pre-determinism allowed by hindsight, at the attitudes and figures of the time.
Unfortunately, the film takes the other route. Appearing even before the conflict between authenticity and “official” approval in the first scene is the preachy side. Oyelowo looks directly into the camera and delivers a speech. This suggests the film’s primary mode of address, namely moralistic speeches made directly to the viewer. The problem is, of course, that such moralizing allows viewers (or at least, liberal white viewers—count me among them) to feel superior: “I know that whites and blacks are equal, I would never have been like these bigots.” I am reminded of an interview with James Gray, in which he asks, if you were “a white guy from a Christian background living in Germany in 1933. Would you be a Nazi? It’s a hard question to answer. The easy answer would be, ‘No, I wouldn’t. I would never believe that.’ But the more complex and difficult answer is that you don’t know what the cultural and social and ideological forces would demand of you, how they would force you to want to go into survival mode, and how that would affect how you behave and how you are with others.” This is, of course, not to say that the film should try to rationalize the racism and violence of the time, but the hindsight-approved method, by now a convention of race-themed biopics and historical dramas (see also: The Help, Lincoln, and even 12 Years a Slave) is the easy way out. It lets us proclaim and congratulate our moral righteousness.
Which brings us to Selma’s major failing: historicity and moral certainty overtake good filmmaking. Director Ava DuVernay portrays the violence in slow-motion and recreates the Birmingham Church bombing so that the victims are talking about the Kings and the explosion is preceded by the words “and then,” two decisions that epitomize the well-intended but overused and frankly cheap appeal to our better morality. There is also an abundance of name-checking and event-summarizing in Selma, from the Birmingham Church bombing to Mahalia Jackson and Annie Lee Cooper and Viola Liuzzo. These scenes are one-and-done, included either to drive the plot forward (as with the bombing) or to satisfy the checklist of significant moments/people without adding drama to the plot. The implications of Cooper attacking Sheriff Clark with regards to King’s nonviolent method are unaddressed. A brief phone-call to Mahalia Jackson offers no weight or credence to Coretta King later questioning her husband’s faithfulness (it is worth noting that 12 Years a Slave also had a brief, underexplored intimation of adultery). Historicity trumps drama.
Fatally, this is most apparent in how the film proceeds to handle Malcolm X and LBJ. Malcolm X is written off in one line (he was tragically killed before most of the film’s events, but his preferred method and its relationship to MLK’s is underdeveloped; violence is never addressed with any nuance or ambiguity). Likewise, LBJ becomes cartoonishly simple. This is not to say, as one of LBJ’s advisers did, that the film is unfair to him, merely that he lacks dramatic heft or complexity as a character and that his brand of liberalism and the role of politics in the Civil Rights are simplified to the extent that it fails to challenge the viewer or complicate the film. The relationship between Johnson and King is telegraphed early, simplified, and lacking consequence or intricacy.
It should be noted that Selma saves its speeches for actual speeches, scenes in which characters address crowds rather than grandstand in the presence of one or two others (and, of course, the film viewer). But DuVernay films these speeches is in a way that makes them analogous with our own viewing experience—shot head-on, with speakers looking at the camera and with occasional reaction shots of the large crowd. It thus becomes difficult to ignore that DuVernay is addressing the audience with these speeches. Once again, hindsight gives way to self-superiority and convention trumps originality.