Selma – a study on MLK Jr. and the work of leading

Ava DuVernay’s Selma starts off so calmly that, despite what history promises, it’s a shock when the first moment of violence arrives. Four little girls walk down the stairs of a church. You know what this means. But what happens next occurs in a flash, a moment never explained. 

What’s to explain? They’re there, and then they’re gone. It’s like the bottom drops out of the world. At that point, a man in my theater began to cry and I’m not sure he stopped. 

Selma isn’t about those four girls, who are almost never mentioned again, but they hover over the rest of the story, which follows Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) at the start of 1965, in the months leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. DuVernay’s movie has a gloriously broad scope; she and screenwriter Paul Webb somehow stick close to King while keeping one eye on the horizon. 

Through details and references, the filmmakers create a sense of something bigger than King, bigger than Selma and bigger than one brief span of time. Here’s Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), trying to push off King’s concerns in favor of his own timeline; here’s George Wallace (Tim Roth), making useless arguments about the way things have always been; here’s a doomed pastor, a fiery student, a woman who tries again and again to register to vote, even though every time, she’s shot down.

Selma is a very good movie, if one that occasionally bogs down in political explanations, and definitely one that couldn’t find enough for its female characters to do. Oyelowo, quietly charismatic, leads an excellent cast. DuVernay and her cinematographer, Bradford Young, manage always to center scenes around him while never relying too heavily on King at a pulpit or lectern; they show us a man with his people and his family, beside, not above. 

It’s not a film about a leader so much as a film about the work of leading — and a film that asks, with every frame, how far we have and haven’t come, all these years later.  This would be a compelling film at any time, but right now, it’s more than that. It’s vital.