Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Sixteen

#16 — Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a proper history lesson. Attaching that description to a film usually signifies dreary dryness and a plodding pace as the filmmakers labor to impart lessons more than shape action or develop drama. That shouldn’t be the case, though. Cinema should be unique equipment to make critical moments from the past come alive and rattle current sensibilities, taking advantage of the personal associations that are natural part of the viewing process — prime among them, the tendency to identify with the hero — to enliven incidents that remain at least somewhat abstract when described in even the most riveting nonfiction tome. Indeed, Selma proves it can be done.

The film is follows the U.S. civil rights movement during a couple critical years in the mid–nineteen-sixties, with the Selma to Montgomery marches as the narrative’s fiery soul. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo, absolutely sensational in the role) is at the forefront of the movement, with the ear and attention of the U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, an unorthodox casting choice that works), and an animated gaggle of activists to pull together into a focused, strategic team. His moral authority is widely understood, but King, the film makes clear, is also a focus of dangerous hatred from the large segments of society, waving their Confederate flags as an expression of unyielding bigotry. All the reverence he receives is occasionally countered by a sucker punch delivered by a white man furious that his fellow citizens are asking for their most fundamental rights to be granted.

With impeccable cinematic craft, DuVernay gives a thrilling immediacy to every choice made by King and his cohorts. The spirited arguments that get them to those decisions are just as charged. DuVernay lines the film with the complexities of process that’s created and adapted on the fly. Opinions differ about the best ways to achieve ends that are widely agreed upon, and some of the most potent tension in the film is not between the activists and adversaries, but instead within the activists’ own ranks. Watching these intelligent, passionate, empathetic people try to decipher and unmarked map to freedom is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

And make no mistake, it is inspiring. With a dynamic visual language, DuVernay accentuates the history-making at work. The actions of these towering figures are as solid and certain and a chisel driven into stone. DuVernay makes it real, engrossing, and vivid, sometimes seemingly through sheer force of will. Her voice — and, in an almost tangible way, her own activism — is consistently present. Although depicting a well-examined part of the nation’s shared recent history, it becomes as personal as autobiography for DuVernay. That, too, is what history, shared correctly, can and should be.

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