When I saw Ava DuVernay’s Selma last December, I, like many other critics, was terrifically taken with it. And I was also a little surprised. I was not surprised that it was good—DuVernay’s 2012 Middle of Nowhere demonstrated she had both considerable talent and considerable perspective—but at the way it was good. DuVernay stuck to her metaphorical guns with respect to perspective and declined to deliver a Great Man biopic. Instead she wove a drama of considerable intelligence, empathy, and analytical chops. She made a film sufficiently unconventional so as to be called radical, a film whose style—or perhaps the better word for what I mean is “mode”—I thought, owed more to Steven Soderbergh’s Che than it did to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
Right-wing Internet gadfly John Nolte probably hit the nails on the heads of hundreds of voting AMPAS members when he wrote, on Twitter, “Selma's biggest problem is that it just doesn't soar at the end. You wait for that emotional release. It never comes. Real failure.” This is an interesting point, for a number of reasons, one of which would arguably center around the request “Define ‘soar’.” (It would be in poor taste for me to speculate as to what kind of film with Martin Luther King as its central character would “soar” for Nolte, whose Twitter feed after the quoted observation has since, as of this writing, been dedicated to all-caps yelling at Ava DuVernay fans about how Martin Scorsese didn’t get an Oscar for Raging Bull either and how they should just shut up.) But Nolte’s not exactly wrong. I was moved by Selma, and by its ending, but that ending, which breaks away from the staged drama of the march and the speech from Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) to intercut actual documentary footage of the events and people. It’s a stirring moment, yes, but it’s a distinctly anti-manipulative one. Instead of using cinematic craft and guile to provide a you-are-there feel, and then perhaps to force an idea of being transported on the viewer, the movie steps back and says “this happened.” Your “emotional release” may vary—as I said, I myself was moved—but the movie’s sense of integrity eschews a particular kind of sentimentality. It won’t indulge deceit.
"I find it hilarious that most of the stuff being written about movies is how conventional they are, and then you have people [...] upset that something's not conventional," Steven Soderbergh remarked at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, responding to some critical slings and arrows hurled at Che when it played there that May. (Soderbergh would take a form of revenge against critics later that year, hiring an actual walrus to give an unflattering portrayal of an escort-reviewer in his 2009 release The Girlfriend Experience.) I imagine that there is if not upset, at least a fair amount of discomfort concerning the unconventional aspects of Selma within the more barnacle-crusted ranks of the Academy. As for the movie’s alleged smear of Lyndon Johnson: whether it is one or not, and its actual extent if it is one, is arguable. But I thought it was within DuVernay’s rights, as an artist and maybe particularly as a black artist, to have Johnson’s character stand in for some particular manifestations of white fear. Johnson’s mild resentment at King’s insistence, as depicted in the film, is revelatory. It’s also rather funny—a good bit—that Johnson decides to act as King has asked largely because Johnson becomes more pissed off at George Wallace than he has been, or ever gets, with King. Whether this is factually true or not is less important in this film’s scheme than not just the dramatic truth of the scenes themselves, but also the truth the scenes demonstrate. Truth about how history, or rather, what we come to see as “History,” is made; almost by accident, pivoted on the pettiest of motivations, perhaps. Similarly, DuVernay’s conception of King seems very much informed by, among other things, what for lack of a better term I’ll call her female tolerance. Clearly DuVernay and her film admire King, but Selma doesn’t quite worship him. It’s not just a matter of acknowledging his flaws and failings as a husband, or depicting him smoking a cigarette while composing a difficult letter. There’s a larger, more intellectual dynamic at work here too. It’s seen in the way DuVernay insists that King, while the most publicly prominent leader of the Civil Rights movement, was not the SOLE leader of it. DuVernay’s careful staging of tactics meetings, her vividly limned portraits of younger figures such as John Lewis, even the single scene in which Malcolm X appears, all stress the value of collective action—that is, the importance of the Civil Rights movement as a movement. And here too the movie resists sentimentality. Not only that, it suggests a continuity and sounds, implicitly, a call to action. Call-to-action movies are not the sort of thing the Academy enjoys. It likes a nice neat social justice movie that sits back and says “problem solved” after the Great Man at its center has done his work. Or, in the case of the aforementioned Gandhi, says “isn’t it a shame things went so wrong, too bad nothing really can be done.” Selma is not just a movie about getting a job done, it’s about thinking things through, and it very often depicts its characters thinking things through. There’s nothing to which Old Hollywood is more hostile than actual thought, except maybe its cinematic depiction. And yes, I know that movies about Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking also got nominated for Best Picture Oscars. But those movies are hardly concerned with thought.