The arc of history is long, but it has finally bent toward a Martin Luther King movie.
For the first time in the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement, a feature film is being devoted to a pivotal chapter in the historic struggle, with King at its center. Over the years, several King movie projects have been started, stalled and stopped, either because a filmmaker got cold feet or King’s family — which controls the rights to his life story and speeches — didn’t agree to make them available. (They have since sold them to DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg producing.)
“Selma,” a film starring British actor David Oyelowo as King, and directed by Ava DuVernay, is the first film to break that logjam. Both a sweeping epic and an intimate personal portrait, it possesses the scope and epic grandeur that befits its subject, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and King’s fight with president Lyndon B. Johnson to secure the Voting Rights Act. But, perhaps more crucially, it depicts King in a new way — not as a forbidding icon or flawless secular saint, but as a cannily strategic player who equalled Johnson move-for-move in a high-stakes bout of political gamesmanship.
What’s more, “Selma,” which opened in Washington on Thursday, makes the bold move of dispensing with King’s most familiar and famous speeches: Working with an original script by Paul Webb, DuVernay carefully paraphrased King’s oratory, so that the words Oyelowo speaks in the film have King’s cadence and meaning, even when they’re not literal.
The reason is simple: “We never even asked” for the rights to King’s speeches, said DuVernay during a recent visit to Washington. “Because we knew those rights are already gone, they’re with Spielberg, and secondly we found a way to do it where we didn’t have to ask for permission, because with those rights came a certain collaboration.”
The result is a fascinating portrait that both eerily captures King, but also feels just a tick off from impersonation. Oyelowo doesn’t physically resemble the civil rights leader, nor does his voice possess quite the ringing timbre most people associate with one of the greatest orators of the 20th century. But the filmmakers’ decision to eschew mimicry liberates “Selma” from being mere hagiographic waxwork, or a series of speeches and set pieces, and allows it to be an authentic drama with fully realized, grounded characters. King, especially, is presented as conflicted, whether the subject is his frequent infidelities or his controversial decision, during the second of three marches from Selma, to turn back instead of moving forward.
“I’m a conflicted, flawed, insecure, at times brilliant, at times nonplussed human being,” Oyelowo said of his characterization of King, “who is facing obstacles and trying to overcome them.” Oyelowo — who was attached to play King in “Selma” seven years ago before the project was shelved, and advocated for DuVernay to direct — believes that this version of King could only have come about with an African American director at the helm. “There was a study done around the police in a certain state in this country, and they admitted that there is an inherent fear of the black male,” Oyelowo said. “So subconsciously or consciously, to have black powerful men driving the narrative as protagonists is frightening for America. And frightening for Hollywood. Subconsciously there is an allergy to it.”
This is why, historically, films that have dealt with the civil rights movement have so often been told through the journey of a white character, whether a white FBI agent in “Mississippi Burning” or a well-meaning college girl in “The Help,” Oyelowo suggested. Conversely, he thinks, “Selma’s” nuanced portrayal of King “gives context to who we are as human beings, and hopefully it disintegrates those fears that are out there.”
Because “Selma” deals with such well-documented history, there will surely be quibbles with the compressions and liberties the filmmakers have taken in the name of economy (the film does a remarkable job of swiftly moving through complicated events in just over two hours). For example, Diane Nash and James Bevel, who originated the idea of marching from Selma and finally convinced King, are relegated to the background of a story in which King is by far the most prominent figure.
Still, the fact that Bevel (played by the musician Common) and Nash (Tessa Thompson) and their fellow activists are there at all represents a small victory: The original screenplay for “Selma” was centered almost entirely in the White House, and Johnson’s struggle with King over whether to address voting rights or the War on Poverty. “It was important to have them in the script, because they weren’t, previously,” DuVernay said, “just to have them named and have them present.” DuVernay added that she insisted on including a scene when they tell King that Selma’s the right place for the upcoming demonstrations. “It’s my tip of the hat to them,” the director said.
“This is the beauty of having Ava be the one to direct it,” Oyelowo added. “Perspective is so key — in terms of the women, in terms of the politics, in terms of who really brought about this change.” In “Selma’s” first incarnations, he said, “perspective was skewed, I’ll be brutally honest with you, in terms of what this film should be. And it was skewed in a way that has been done so many times before. . . . I’ve watched this thing morph into what it should be, and what other things haven't been and could have been, just by virtue of perspective.”
Oyelowo and DuVernay had received the ultimate imprimatur of that perspective just a few weeks ago, when Oprah Winfrey — who has a cameo role in “Selma” and is one of the film’s producers — played host at a screening of the film in Santa Barbara, for members of King’s family and several of the real-life activists who are portrayed in the film, including Nash, Rep. John Lewis and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young. Not only did Martin Luther King III express his approval, DuVernay added, but someone approached her in the darkened screening room while the end credits were still rolling. “Ambassador Young walked up to me in my chair, put his hands around my face and said, ‘Well done,’ ” DuVernay recalled. “ ‘You did it.’ ”