“That’s why Rosa sat on the bus;
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.”
Those lyrics can be heard in John Legend and Common’s “Glory,” a new song that plays during the end credits of Selma and makes the connection between the 50-year-old events depicted in the movie and the current events continuing to affect the nation. No, the movie isn’t about or related to Rosa Parks, but that line represents the beginnings of the African-American Civil Rights Movement that 10 years later was still unfinished, even after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and obviously remains unfinished to this day. Had there been more time for the completion of the movie and soundtrack, perhaps there’d also be another lyric in “Glory” referencing Eric Garner’s last words of “I Can’t Breathe,” which has been adopted as a statement of protest against race-related police brutality and lack of repercussions.
When the Ferguson Grand Jury decision was announced late last month, there was backlash against “insensitive” tweets and other public acknowledgment of the link between the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and Selma, which was a month away from hitting theaters (we’ve still got a week until it opens in limited release on Christmas, while most of America won’t have the chance to see it until its January 9th expansion). The issue was mostly taken up with anyone remarking about the movie’s Oscar chances in the wake of the Grand Jury results. They immediately noted the accidental relevance of a movie about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches to the marches occurring in Ferguson (and now other cities around the US, first due to the Brown case and then also due to the Garner case in New York City). But sure, awards consideration is hardly important at a time like that, but what is awards buzz but just a little part of the zeitgeist, and there’s no denying that Selma is going to be a more significant part of this year’s cultural climate because of its compatibility with the news. It’s a period piece, but it’s still the movie for these times. Therefore it’s the movie of 2014.
The good thing is that Selma is also arguably the best movie of 2014 – or at least one of them. Director Ava DuVernay (who is also our choice for filmmaker of the year) and screenwriter Paul Webb deliver a historical drama unlike any we’ve seen from Hollywood in a while. I hesitate to call it a biopic even if it seems to center on a single real-life figure, and part of that is because the biopic is a genre that has a low reputation these days, one of predictable beats and conventions and a tendency for sappiness. Selma is also not quite a biopic because it’s not about Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and his life but about a moment in the progress of racial equality in America, of which King was a major part. Yet it is still a character piece that focuses on the Civil Rights leader in ways that show him to have been a human with flaws and who made mistakes, as well as a hero.
DuVernay doesn’t hold King back from being an inspiration, but her movie also doesn’t put him too high on a pedestal. Every scene of Selma feels real – even while it’s a fact that much of it (speeches particularly) is fictionalized – and every emotional affect on the audience is earned. The movie doesn’t tug at the heart nor force drama just for the sake of drama. The performances are perfect all around, not one member of the ensemble an exception, and Oyelowo is so deep in the part that it’s hard to think of him as the same person seen also this year in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year, and not just because of his weight gain for the part. The other external, meta-textual matter is more prominent in the mind, and Selma’s scenes of policemen beating the marching activists are given an increased power through our associating it with this year’s similar images on TV and live streams.
Outside of the Ferguson reference in the end-credits song and now appearances by the cast and crew of the movie wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts at promotional events, Selma itself makes no blatant attempt at contemporary significance. And it could have. Never mind that it was filmed before the death of Michael Brown, because the movie is about the fight for voters rights and we are still dealing with discriminatory tactics during elections half a century later, plus other problems with racism that are also relevant. Selma works by itself as a story of the achievements of the era it portrays, and it also works more broadly and timelessly as a reminder of what remains unchanged. It’s like the scene in the movie where King is revealed to be an adulterer. We can celebrate his greatness and the movement and nation’s triumphs while also understanding each’s shortcomings.
The movie, on the other hand, is nearly free of faults. There are minor quibbles regarding the one-note characterizations of George Wallace (Tim Roth) and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), but overall there is so little to criticize in Selma. It is sure to be remembered, too, as a film that persists for its optimistic tone, entertaining performances and some genuinely heartfelt and heartbreaking sequences. And of course, for how it fits the atmosphere of the year it was released. When we think back on 2014 and consider what movies defined these past 12 months in cinema, we’ll definitely recall Guardians of the Galaxy, Citizenfour, Boyhood and The Interview. But Selma will be the most prominent definer, marked in turn by how 2014 defined it, too. We can only hope that it isn’t defined by and the definer of more years going forward.