“Recite the preamble of the Constitution.” It’s the first question the courthouse registrar asks Annie Lee Cooper, a black activist trying to register to vote. His second question concerns the number of county judges in Alabama. His third, their names. All 67.
From its opening sequence, Selma is out to stir us. We watch Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, painstakingly fill out a voting registration form at her local courthouse. We watch her steady, systematic humiliation. The snappy overhead shot which shows the triumphant registrar’s white hand stamp “DENIED” over her form serves as the film’s first impetus for outrage. Paul Webb’s screenplay spares no opportunity for tear-jerking, from beaten old men to weeping mothers. There is one thing stopping the film from being a plangent melodrama: all of these moving ‘set-pieces’ are not, in fact, cinematic devices, but facts. There is a strange look of duty on the faces of my fellow film-watchers, a sense that they are there to take necessary medicine. The woman to my left tuts and hisses to signal her strong disapproval at each racist act.
Still, though, Ava Duvernay’s Selma doesn’t read like a textbook blockbuster resurrection of history’s darker panels – the kind lost somewhere between a miasma of self-flagellation, and the lavish, lurid throttle of the Hollywood sob-machine. Rather, this film is an exercise in focus, and nuance.
It centres around one distinct segment of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s: the battle for African-American voting rights. While constitutionally allowed to vote, black Americans were prevented from registering by polling taxes, absurd questions, and ‘exams’ to probe ‘Americanness’, or just plain intimidation.
Selma, a strongly white town in rural Alabama, provides the main setting, although the film’s two other main locations, the White House, and Martin Luther King’s rented home in Atlanta, are significant. Selma has a good eye for the complex internal discord between factions like the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Its recreation of Oval office negotiations also has a chilling, cynical authenticity, both in dialogue as well as in some of its shot compositions.
As for its portrayal of King himself, it treads a fine line between acknowledging the defamation he may have undergone at the hands of Edgar J. Hoover’s FBI, and the sacralisation he certainly enjoyed in the aftermath of Birmingham and St Augustine. Where it occasionally falls into the latter trend, there are also comparatively quiet domestic scenes between King and his wife Coretta which reveal a fragile, fallible man.
Selma is aided by its strong cast. Oyelowo as MLK is a great mix of fervency and doubt; Carmen Ejogo conveys his wife’s life of harassment and fear for her family with brilliant minimalism; and the SCLC leadership works convincingly as a simmering political ensemble. Lorraine Toussaint, who notoriously starred as the psychopathic but oh-so-badass ‘V’ on Orange Is The New Black, makes a striking cameo as Amelia Boynton, the Georgian civil rights activist.
As a whole, the film has one salient low point: its soundtrack. While it’s not distractingly awful, it seems to do what the cinematography, screenplay, and actors have clearly just about avoided. The score plays directly, unimaginatively, into the well-grooved tracks of everything we might expect. Sad piano for sad death, growing bass for growing march.
Nevertheless, Selma is definitely worth the ride. What it lays out for us is frequently difficult to look straight at – hopefully a marker that it contains some grains of truth, and challenge. Expect to feel, and feel viscerally. There are far worse ways to get politically motivated.