Ava DuVernays father grew up in a small town in Alabama, between Selma and Montgomery. As a young boy, he watched hundreds of protestors march through his town on the way to the state capitol to petition for voting rights to be enforced for African American citizens of the South. So you’d have to look pretty hard for a director with a closer connection to this story. But it’s not just close personal ties to this particular event that has her uniquely placed to take on a project like this. Her activism on behalf of women and filmmakers of colour gives her a unique perspective on the world of politics and protest.
This is the story of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and the man at the helm of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jnr. After leading several other campaigns of varying success in other parts of the South, King turned his attention to the matter of voting rights. Although the right to vote technically applied to African Americans at the time, there were plenty of discriminatory loopholes and requirements in the South that prevented them from voting in practice. Martin Luther King Jnr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference felt the tensions rising in Selma and therefore chose it as the perfect place to begin a 54 mile march to the state capitol, Montgomery, in order to force the issue.
This film begins by revealing both the direct, violent threats employed by white supremacists and also the insidious, but just as damaging, barriers white men in power used to keep Black men and women subjugated. DuVernay pulls no punches. The brutality in the film, mostly at the hands of law inforcement, is shocking. Most of us know some of the facts of the time, we’ve seen photographs of lynchings in our history lessons and we’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird. But DuVernay means to make sure we don’t forget that a whole race of people were treated like animals to be herded and cajoled and to be put down if they so much as dared to step out of line. And she means to make sure we face up to the fact that it’s still happening.
She also admits that King was just a man. David Oyelowo plays a man wrestling with the decisions he has made, keenly feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with being the face of a national movement. He is misunderstood, he disappoints people. Instead of deifying him, DuVernay humanizes him. My one and only criticism of the film is the failure to fully explain the reason King decided to abandon the second attempt at marching across county lines on 9th March. He was actually obeying a federal injunction which ruled against the march taking place. He knew he could not count on the court protecting the protesters if he flouted it. But DuVernay mysteriously neglects to make that clear and instead makes it look like he just lost his nerve. Perhaps people truly were in the dark concerning some of his decisions, but this seems like an odd choice.
What sets this film apart from similar stories about prominent male figures of political history, is that it doesn’t neglect the female characters around him. After all, there are hundreds of films that revolve solely around powerful white male characters. DuVernay knows that everyone is influenced by the people around them and as much as we try to self determine, the people closest to us leave a lasting impression upon our characters. Refreshingly, she makes Kings wife, Corretta, a central character. She’s not just the lonely, beleaguered wife who never signed up for an absent husband with responsibilities beyond her and the home. She plays a pivotal role in the machinations of Kings politics, as do activists Amelia Boynton Robinson and Diane Nash.
It seriously shows up another film nominated for the Best Picture award at the Golden Globes in 2015, The Imitation Game. Here, Keira Knightley played the role of Joan Clarke, but director Morten Tyldum failed to acknowledge any of Clarkes achievements apart from being quite good at Maths, piquing Alan Turnings interest and going on to become someone else’s wife. In case you’re interested, look her up, she was an unbelievably accomplished woman in her own right. In contrast, I don’t think Ava DuVernay would have ever even questioned the idea that Corretta King would play an integral role in her telling of the King story.
The film is cast impeccably. David Oyelowo is utterly compelling as King, Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta with complete sophistication and Lorraine Toussaint harnesses nerves of steel as Amelia Boynton Robinson. On the other team, Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon Johnson, Dylan Baker is J. Edgar Hoover, Tim Roth is George Wallace and Giovanni Ribisi sports a very fetching comb-over as Lee C. White. DuVernays intention is certainly for us to revile these figures of government and they really do look untrustworthy. Despite the criticisms of historical inaccuracy that have been levelled at the film, I really enjoyed the marked divide between the bloated, apathetic, washed out white men in power and the passionate young black men and women of Kings movement.
It is a completely compelling film from start to finish. The acting is flawless, the cinematography is heady and the pace is swift. And to top it off, all the sharp, strong, intelligent black female characters make it even more of an inspiring story than it could have been. It sails past the Bechdel test finish line without even breaking a sweat with one knockout conversation between Corretta King and Amelia Boynton Robinson. So, Ava DuVernay, keep doing what you’re doing. Coz it’s bloody brilliant.