Selma honors history in gripping portrayal

Dani Tuchman, Co-opinions editor

There have been a fair share of biopics in the last decade, but there are few that truly manage to encapsulate the crux of an individual’s life accomplishments. Selma, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, recently defined itself as a “distinguished alumni” under that category, proving once again that history can be compelling when viewed outside of the two-dimensional insights of textbooks.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also accredited with the brilliant melodrama I Will Follow back in 2011 and a Best Director award in 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, Selma maturely composes a timeline that follows the unparalleled tribulations of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo).

Centered around specific factual events in Selma, Alabama in the mid-60s, this small town becomes the non-violent protest hub for demonstrating and demanding the necessity of equal voting rights for blacks, striking down the stringently mandated absurdities of the voter registration process. King’s altruistic dedication to the civil rights movement is well-appreciated; he incites Alabama congregations to rise up and act together in their shared obligation to march on behalf of their right to vote.

DuVernay delves immediately into the inferno of this time period: within the first five minutes, there is an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It floods the eyes and the eardrums with blasts of bomb-fires and the deafening cries of the children. After the resulting flames and ash clear the widescreen, the audience is presented with one of the first encounters between King and the president at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson.

DuVernay’s portrayal of these events is commendable but mainly powerful. She seamlessly illustrates their complex disagreements within a relationship that wasn’t disclosed to the American public during this uproarious political epoch.

Back in Selma, tumultuous acts of deadly police force erupt in the camouflage of the moonlit streets in response to King’s peaceful protesting strategies. At times, the ensuing carnage provoked me to pull an eye-covering arm over my petrified eyes as a result of the realistically graphic violence.

The gravity of the brutality is further revealed throughout the film as wide angle shots subsequently zoom in on the demonstrators, making the audience feel as if they are witnesses. Nowhere is this more evident than during the stark climax of the film: the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (prior to the planned 50 mile march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery).

Selma captivates you in horror as hundreds of voting rights protesters are riotously beaten during the course of a half-speed montage of battering nightsticks and the clamorous sounds of the Southern police squad’s attempt to exterminate everyone in their path.

In response to the brutality, Oyelowo delivers a poignant monologue to his church  members in which he masterfully replicates King’s effective vocal mannerisms. This scene further demonstrates the brilliant authenticity embedded in first-time screenwriter Paul Webb’s screenplay.

It is an unjustifiable crime to think that the Academy failed to recognize Oyelowo for his spot-on depiction of the magnanimous leader. In truth, his performance blended with the ensemble of extraordinary actors who were all perfect players of history and all indicative of an artfully casted crew.

Throughout the movie, DuVernay inserts emotional reminders of King’s normalcy and his evidentiary tendency to make mistakes. Moreover, audience members are reminded of the untold issues in his personal and political life. These moments serve an added element of insight that our The Americans history textbook fails to mention.

Selma is a historical drama, replete with the themes of black indignation, the trouble between violent and non-violent protest, Southern whites’ response to desegregation and King’s ultimate ability to shift Johnson’s political agenda from poverty to civil rights by keeping the movement on the front pages of every newspaper.

I realized one thing during the rolling credits: this movie will not leave you with the “I really enjoyed this film” type of satisfaction. Instead, Selma will move you in a way that no historical biography cinema has prior to this point.