As a piece of filmmaking ‘Selma’ is gut wrenching drama as much as it is intelligent political thriller. Historians sympathetic to LBJ’s legacy have slammed the film for its depiction of Johnson, particularly his obstinate stance against the march and King’s pleas for legislative action, and repeating LBJ’s use of the term “nigger” in conversation with Governor Wallace, intimating a ‘good ol boy’ complicity of political purpose. Rather than casting the standoff in simplistic terms, Duvernay gives us a sense of the political machinations that framed the events. Johnson is portrayed fairly and honestly, it would seem, as a victim of his own rhetoric and determination to achieve a great legacy, of political fragility as a President from the south. Just as honest is the portrayal of King, wrought with self doubt and fear, not for himself alone but of failure of his tactics in the movement, of his shortcomings as a husband. In one of the most illuminating scenes in the film, a private conversation between Lewis and King, it is John Lewis who must gird King’s courage to carry on with the march to Montgomery. DuVernay also squarely deals with King’s infidelities while not dwelling on his personal moral compass, but rather on Coretta’s painful but steadfast response to her husband’s ‘achilles heel’, one conveniently exploited by his opponents, Hoover’s FBI in particular in attempts to deter King.
Duvernay’s restraint in sticking to the narrative of the march is very rewarding. The film never strays from its focus and for all of the larger than life personalities involved, heroes of the movement, they play a supporting role to the march itself. Beyond David Oleyowo’s convincing portrayal of King, not an easy task considering King’s charismatic presence and considerable oratorical skills, the ensemble cast is superb. In fact, all four of the portrayal’s of the film narrative protagonists, Oleyowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Tim Roth as Governor Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King never overreach for their characters with superfluous or affected mimicry. Johnson and Wallace are easy candidates for caricature. Wilkinson and Roth respectively bring great skill and restraint in capturing the essence of characters trapped in their own skin. Particularly satisfying is the White House meeting scene between LBJ and Wallace, a chess game between two soon to be political dinosaurs where the chess board has suddenly shifted from beneath their hands. It demonstrates with agonizing accuracy the flaws of a democracy, but also the hopeful impact of a collective non-violent movement of protest. Carmen Ejogo’s uncanny depiction of Coretta King brings a much needed dimension of complexity to her story as the devoted wife of the legendary King, a great, nonetheless flawed individual. Casting is remarkable in that none of these principal actors depicting a defining moment in American history is American, underlining the universality of Selma’s themes.