The weight of history is a heavy burden. Every time fiction attempts to tackle it, a battle between verisimilitude and narrative is fought; there can be only one victor, and each has its casualties. For your consideration: Braveheart won the Oscar for Best Picture, but told a vastly different story to what actually happened back in the days of William Wallace; while the fact-heavy focus of Apollo 13 meant that world affairs – the small matter of the Vietnam war – didn’t even impact the film in the slightest. Yet somehow, Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, splits this conflict right down the middle, and is a huge achievement of juggling fact with theme – mining tension from a story we already know, along with outstanding character building. It’s a drama that actually revels in being based on history – and what history.
Selma, Alabama, USA, 1964: Martin Luther King Jr has just received the Nobel peace prize, having written himself into the history books with his ‘I have a dream’ speech, and helping to get the Civil Rights act passed. He could easily take a back seat, having done enough for his country – yet he journeys to this little town in the South of America, embarking on a mission of both personal and universal importance. Black people now have the vote, but legislation that is still deeply steeped in racism is stopping them. Selma will be King’s battleground: his brand of pacifism – spittle-flecked speeches and peaceful protests – is his weapon, and beside him are a group of loyal followers, including his equally-strong spouse Coretta Scott King, who will set up camp in town and cure the American heartland of its prejudice from the inside.
Selma is near perfect in every way, thanks to expert direction: DuVernay does a tremendous job of keeping the narrative flowing effortlessly like a thriller, all the while making sure that the subject’s huge political themes are woven in seamlessly; this never once feels like a ‘message’ movie, instead opting to get us entirely invested with King and his team, and to care about these issues as much as they do. King makes us listen; Selma makes us care. But boy, do we listen first: David Oyelowo, who has been sidelined many times before in thankless supporting roles, gets to shine front and centre as King, earning the right to wear that moustache and handle the microphone (and in the process, entirely proving Stephen Frears wrong who, when he was originally attached to direct, thought the actor wasn’t right for the part). But thankfully this isn’t a mere performance-based film, like fellow Best Picture contender The Theory of Everything: every frame of DuVernay’s film is a clear polaroid of a time gone by – but each polaroid is sharp in focus, and eloquently stitched together. The movie reaches its most spine-tingling heights when King and his troupe attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as part of a march to exercise their right to vote, and face armed forces on the other side – Bradford Young’s lush cinematography and Spencer Averick’s elegant edits come powerfully together to provide us with a moment that is profound in ambition, and enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.
But despite its lofty, sometimes heavenly gaze, Selma also takes time to explore King’s more human foibles. An extraordinary scene in which he and Coretta Scott duke it out over his infidelity is painfully raw; a delicately handled slice of observation peering at a relationship nearing its doom. It’s these human viewpoints at the film’s centre which elevate Selma from dusty biopic territory into the realms of remarkable, artful cinema. Perhaps DuVernay, Oyelowo, and the entire cast and crew’s greatest achievement is in making the movie so fully realised, so articulate in conveying the grave human issues that are at stake – instead of using audience familiarity with the subject as an easy fallback – that it feels entirely like fiction. The world in Selma feels real, and as such we feel that the stakes, too, are real; anyway, this tale of triumph against the odds could never have taken place in gritty, nihilistic reality. Their struggle is too bold, too great, to succeed and secure a place in history. But thanks to King, and many others, it did.