Now, here’s the way to make a truly resonating Bio-pic, the type of ‘Prestige Drama’ that gets it. At the risk of going into spoiler territory I want to examine a scene late in Ava DuVernay’s topical and powerful Civil Rights Era Period Film Selma, which finds Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) just coming back from the front lines of the voting rights protest marches near Montgomery, Alabama. Making a definitive statement, not to his nemesis Governor George Wallace or reluctant President Lyndon Johnson, but to the protest marchers behind him and supporters of civil rights around the country. As King is berated in a church by his fellow civil rights leaders and volunteers upon returning empty handed, seemingly turning around in the face of victory, Oyelowo is shot from below in close-up with a intensely lit white chandelier above him. At first I was thinking this is to make the Civil Rights Leader overtly saintly and prestigious, as though an ethereal aura surrounds the man in his conviction. However, the glow radiating the actor’s face and expressions does not reveal sheer unbreakable determination across his face, it is of ponderous concern.
Then the camera angle changes abruptly to an omniscient point-of-view above the beleaguered Civil Rights Leader as he walks to consul his arguing friends, the rows of red benches behind him practically jumps out at the audience because of the high-contrast from the white light in the previous shot. The benches are seemingly bleeding with the the blood spilled in the name of his people’s liberty and his own preaching of non-violence in the face of violent oppression. Conveying that He knows all-too-well what this march means and what has been done to get the cause this far, so it isn’t enough to have a just one small victory today, there needs to be one that carries on, even without him right there leading the charge. A revolution is more than just one man and a vision, it has to be one of many. If more bio-pics and “Prestige Dramas” (again, I don’t know what that phrase is exactly supposed to signify, every drama should aim for prestige) had these kind of visceral images and conveyed as much of the mental states of their subjects with a single shot, I could get behind much more so them for high-recommendations and serious awards recognition.
That is just a single scene in the of-the-moment period-drama, but there are several that are just as hard hitting and poignant in depicting the fight for civil rights in this tumultuous socio-political era. Some of the most powerful are not even with the larger than life figure that is Dr. King in the scene, such as the prolog in the Birmingham Church and the Bloody Sunday Sequence. As the movement had many leaders, followers, and casualties. Including Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy James Bevel, John Lewis, Malcolm X, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. DuVernay skillfully guides her audience along through the many faces, victories, pitfalls and political infighting that occurred within the revolution. The film becomes more of a testament to the entirety of people and ideas behind Civil Rights Movement than just its most revered figure.
Nonetheless, David Oyelowo does a tremendous job breathing life into the inspirational icon; from the man’s big impassioned speeches to the smaller quieter moments in his life. We are not seeing him at arm’s length, distancing ourselves from the air of greatness, we are right along side as he fights for his “Inalienable” rights and struggles against his own doubts of what will bring about change. We are in the moment, focused in this one event in his storied life. It would’ve been so easy to chart the life story of Dr. King, from his upbringing to murder, as so many bio-pics on historical figures often do and fall flat doing so because an audience is made emotionally distant by a “best-hits” album, so-to-speak. As it becomes more of a history lesson than an engaging visceral piece.
Not to go too far on a tangent and belittle another film in the process, but The Theory of Everything is the most recent egregious example of this model, as it narrates its story through unfocused direction and meanders through the great Dr. Stephen Hawking’s lifetime achievements like a T.V series clip show. Regardless of the acting talent put on-screen, there is little to no resonance by the end credits, I didn’t get a single insightful thing about Hawking that I couldn’t get from five-minutes of research online. Here however with Selma, I know more internally (the emotional and mental states) about it’s subjects due to gripping scenes and visceral imagery I highlighted above than I ever could with years of academic research.
Beginning with Lincoln and Django Unchained released in 2012, and with the equally great 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station a year later and now with Selma, movie-going audiences now have a nearly all-encompassing perspective on the history of race relations in this country. Some may argue that movies like this are helped critically by “riding the tide” of current events; be that as it may, the problem with that argument is that this movie could’ve been released anytime in past 50 years and there would have been something in the news that would cause this kind of movie to be topical and on-point. Case-in-point, In 2013 with the Supreme Court rendering the non-discriminatory section in the 1965 voting rights act “obsolete” and voiding it, which is within the very same act that is depicted here as being fought for at great human cost.
Selma though is not completely dower about its themes and outlook, it depicts a time of outright horror and violent social strife, yes, but also seeks to highlight the many faces from different races that together helped to bring about reform. Many of the problems depicted in 1965 still exist today in different and tragically similar forms, realistically there is no endpoint, it is a continuing on-going process. And it is films made in this vein that empirically show that although great leaders die and progress plateaus, ideas and dreams always forge ahead.