It has been nearly 50 years since we lost the great Martin Luther King Jr. to a cowards gun shot and still most have not seen a definitive film on this great man’s life. Well, all that should change January 9. I have been saying for years that I wanted an MLK biopic and apparently it has been a long road to get it made. Directors like Spike Lee and Lee Daniels have been attached before, but things never seemed to work out.
It has been said that apparently the MLK estate is a pain in the ass to work with and I’m sure they had some things to say about painting King’s marital life in the kindest light. However, that’s all water under the bridge now. I like to think that the real reason is because the cosmos had not aligned yet for the brilliant young black director, Ava Duvernay, to step into the picture. What a talent this woman is. Most of you have never heard of her, but after this picture she will be a talent you won’t forget.
The other name you won’t soon forget is David Oyelowo. This man has been around for quite some time, but his performance as MLK should garner him an Oscar nomination and all the recognition that comes with it. Oyelowo absolutely disappears into King’s skin like no other performer could have. He looks the part and sounds the part, sure, but it’s the way he disappears into the understanding of the mission that is so inspiring. He was my pick for the best performance of the year and I stand by that.
I think the thing that makes this screenplay work so well (outside an outstanding actor and director to tell it) is that writer Paul Webb (a man nobody has heard of before) did not go the way of the cradle to grave biopic. Instead, he and Duvernay have gone the same way Kushner and Spielberg did with ‘Lincoln’. They picked the most pivotal point in his life and use that moment to exploit all that was important about his quest for social justice (and the heart of the man himself).
They do this by concentrating the story on the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march of 1965. This was the march that caught the eye of the nation and forced LBJ to sign the Voting Rights Act (an act recently gutted by the Supreme Court). Many in this country will know of the march by name, but the politics behind what made the march work and the people who made it work are much more fascinating. Some may also disagree with LBJ’s part in this, but there is certainly history to back it up.
After a series of powerful scenes to establish injustice (including a bombing of children), the film basically opens with MLK going to LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) with his concerns about the voting rights of blacks being trampled. Johnson does want to support him, but feels that it is not the right time and he wants to use his political capital on something else. King will have none of the waiting and decides to make his next location of protest that of Selma, Alabama.
A wonderful scene, following their arrival, is used to explain the nature of the King movement. You see, although it was important that it was a movement of non-violence, King knew that it was violence that created change and violence that made the news. So, the reason Selma was perfect was that the local sheriff was a real racist son of a bitch and the townspeople were not much better. A scene where a young man dies after a protest and King sits with the relative truly illustrates the difficulty of the political protest they were playing.
Yet, that same scene also paints the picture of the American negro during the 20th century unlike many entire films have ever done. The strength in spirit of these battered people we see on screen is inspiring. It’s one of the best and most emotional scenes in the film. It is also that scene which leads to the need for a massive and dangerous march to truly make the change they needed.
The scenes that follow are a game of cat and mouse between the established authorities and the oppressed citizens. The most powerful obviously being the first attempted march that lead to the mass beating of the protesters. This moment in history still stands as the most public display of violent racism on record and probably is the biggest reason the march was successful. It is a sad fact of life that violence creates change.
This film illustrates a lot of sad facts about American history and a lot of little hard fought victories won by an oppressed people. However, it also brilliantly illustrates Martin Luther King Jr. the man unlike anything has before. Many will believe they understood MLK before they come into this movie, but most will leave realizing they had no idea. ‘Selma’ is a monumental achievement in historical filmmaking and a movie that will stand the test of time. Go out and see it. Show Hollywood we want more movies like this and hopefully we will get them.