Historical figures can seem larger than life. These are the people who have changed the course of history, whose actions in life are taught to school children in textbooks. These people are distant—untouchable honoured statues with days named after them. By what strange alchemy can you turn these myths into flesh and blood?
Films are an interesting solution. They tell stories that allow their viewers to empathize with their subjects while at the same time setting up a distance that mythologizes them anew. Of course there are countless biopics of historical figures, some more successful than others. Some could even be called disasters (…looking at you, Alexander ). Part of the problem can come from how long ago the events being depicted took place. Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay) took place only decades ago. However, the passage of time can create emotional distance from the people whose actions in life make them seem like impossible standards to live up to.
The very first scene of Selma doesn’t start with one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s many life events recorded by history. It begins with a scene between Dr. King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo). The ascot he has put on is making him uncomfortable. “It’s not right,” he tells her. “We shouldn’t be looking like we’re living high on the hog while folks back home are…it’s not right.” They’ve put on formal clothing and are enjoying a brief moment of marital intimacy before making an obligation. They discuss their hopes for future. He wants to be a pastor in a college town, teach classes and make speaking engagements. She wants them to be able to save up for a house. There is a silent and solemn pause understood by both of them. They can’t have those things and live in peace. That’s why they’re there—in Oslo, Norway, where Dr. King receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
How do you make a heroic historical figure a relatable person? For one, show what their motivations were for doing what they did. The internal, personal ones, and the external community driven ones. In this small scene we get all of that. In doing so, Dr. King is brought closer to us, no longer that marble statue. He was a man who wants what everyone wants. But he had the courage to fight for it. The opening scene of Selma demonstrated that director Ava DuVernay knows that it’s important to show the man before he was mythologized. It seems like an impossible feat to be able to do the things a distant historical figure has done. But it’s a lot simpler to follow in the footsteps of a great man if you only have the courage to do so.
DuVernay masterfully weaves the personal with the historical throughout the film. Dr. King doesn’t just explain to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that white people get away with murdering Black people, including children, in the South because Black people are blocked from voting; that white people who have been voted-in agree as a committee to let racially motivated murderers get away with their crimes. It’s demonstrated in a scene with kids talking as kids do in a church and getting brutally blown up.
It’s also demonstrated in Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempting to vote and getting asked a multitude of questions until she can’t answer one and is denied the vote. Winfrey’s usual bombastic personality has been stripped away in this scene and instead she plays Annie with a resigned cynicism. My external knowledge of Oprah as a television personality host only emphasized the injustice of the scene. It made me consider the fact that African-Americans were treated so horribly that even such an unstoppable force such as Oprah would be beaten into a meek state. That is, until later on in the film when she’s pushed too far.
The pairing of the two events of physical violence against African-Americans and denying them the vote is what clarifies the goal of the characters of the film. They need fair representation in government and for their voices to be heard by an administration that denies them entry. The stakes are literally life and death.
That administration however is violently reluctant to allow African-Americans their constitutional right to vote. J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) does his slimy best to knee-cap Dr. King emotionally, which is sanctioned by the president. Olde-timey police typewriter reports frame Dr. King’s movements throughout the movie. It’s a subtle signal to the audience that an ever-looming white authority is always watching him. Even a simple phone call he makes to a friend for some comfort is logged in clinical terms by the ever-watchful FBI. As we watch Dr. King experience such a human moment, it’s interrupted by the reason he fights on.
Scenes where Dr. King enacts his dramatic and brilliant strategies to attract the attention of the media and subsequently the president are paired with scenes with his friends and compatriots chatting and good-naturedly teasing each other in a kitchen. There is a constant push and pull in the film of the personal and the historical. DuVernay understands that you can’t have one without the other.
David Oyelowo is pitch perfect as Dr. King. He is as convincingly charismatic delivering Dr. King’s famous speeches as he is sympathetic and charming with his friends and family. Unfortunately not many biopics are done this skillfully. Whether it’s with tessering or marching on Selma, Ava DuVernay continues to prove herself as one of our best filmmakers.