It’s just about impossible not to be moved by Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and not just because of its uncanny (and unplanned) coincidence with a fresh wave of anti-black racism in America. Even if the film had come out last winter instead of this winter—before Ferguson, before Eric Garner—its impact would no doubt have been just as deeply felt. That’s because DuVernay has somehow managed to make a historical drama that’s smart without being pretentious, polished without seeming mannered, and emotionally powerful without stooping to cheap sentiment. What are the odds that a movie about Martin Luther King could come out in January and not feel like Oscar bait?
However slim they may have been, DuVernay has beaten them. Selma is handsome, classy, and, with the exception of some of the LBJ scenes, free of period-picture bloat. It seems to channel the power and the grace of King himself, played vigorously by British actor David Oyelowo. (The film, perhaps not surprisingly, is an independent, international co-production financed by the U.K., France…and Oprah Winfrey. Maybe that’s why it’s able to sidestep so many of the problems that mar Hollywood dramas.)
I haven’t seen DuVernay’s previous films, but based on this one I’m excited to see where she goes from here. What’s remarkable about DuVernay’s filmmaking is how well she handles the action sequences: the scenes in which King and his fellow protesters attempt to make their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge are extraordinarily shot and edited considering how complexly they’re staged. Curiously, it’s in the quieter dialogue scenes that the editing and direction feel less self-assured. My suspicion is that these scenes weren’t given as much attention in the editing room as DuVernay and her post-production team scrambled to deliver the final cut of the film to critics last month. By the end of the film, though, we’re left to marvel at its sweeping expanse and forgive it its flaws. We need this film, and not just because we’re getting it now.