Tell it in the present tense
I recently came across a headline describing Selma as an action movie, which sounds ironic given the subject of Ava DuVernay’s biopic: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most outspoken proponents of non-violence who ever lived. And yet it’s also the perfect way to describe the film. No, Selma isn’t some revisionist fantasy that turns Dr. King into a militant vigilante in the vein of Inglourious Basterds, but it does use an action-packed aesthetic to grip us more tightly than the standard-issue historical drama. Tracking the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, Selma seeks to absorb us into the risk-fraught lives of the civil rights leaders and all those involved – it wants not merely to inspire us but to arrest us physiologically, putting us right there on the frontlines of the protest movement. Here is a film that boils our blood, gets our heart pounding then breaking for a racially-charged conflict that persists into the present and therefore deserves to be felt in all its now-ness.
In this regard, cinematographer Bradford Young does invaluable work by painting the film’s tumultuous ’60s milieu in hard-hitting, stylized strokes; a combination of close-ups, slow motion, and shallow focus shots is used to magnify harrowing details – a fatal gunshot, a hate-driven beating, the body of a young black girl flung into the air by a bomb planted in the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. These aesthetic gestures, often characteristic of splashy action pictures from the Zack Snyder camp of moviemaking, function here to overcome time’s dulling effect on even the most flagrant of atrocities. Blogger Kartina Richardson, writing on Django Unchained, said it best when she lamented the depiction of slavery in the 1989 film Glory and other conventional period pictures. As she describes it, these movies succumb to the passage of time, allowing us to feel sad about black suffering at a distance made up of decades and centuries, but not what it was like to actually live in fear. Django subverts this tradition by going beyond realism into twisted exhilaration and gut-wrenching terror, closing the gap between “then” and “now” by bringing the audience’s experience nearer to the horror of true-life slavery than what an old-fashioned historical picture could provide.
Selma is more effective still because it accomplishes this experiential time travel without committing violence against the viewer. Rather, it puts the mechanisms of popular cinema – namely sensational filmmaking designed to elicit a swift and intense emotional response – to profound use. These devices bridge past and present by making 50-years-ago feel like a 2015 experience; they stir us up and then some, wracking our nerves, making us feel. Whereas biopics typically seem subdued, like moving museums rather than present-tense recreations, Selma is edgy and raw, unfolding with the urgency and volatility of life being lived, and a dangerous life at that. This is the movie in which Lyndon B. Johnson curses out Alabama governor George Wallace; for which Common and John Legend composed a moving hip-hop “labor of love”; and through which we receive a Dr. King played by David Oyewolo in a performance of tremendous rigor and towering soul. All of this feels anything but bygone, defying the entombing powers of textbook history in favor of the kind of history that is ongoing, passionate, and vital.