What is a “political film”? Is it to have an ideology? If so, a great many films are political in relation to the socio-political context of their production, whether they oppose or endorse it. Or is a political film one that expresses a specific point that is central to the film’s meaning? This more restrictive definition is often applied to filmmakers such as Tim Robbins and Ken Loach, who have been described as expressing political agendas across their respective oeuvres. I suggest a definition somewhere inbetween: a political film is one that dramatizes the practice of politics through a narrative concerned with this practice and characters are involved in the events. Such films can be about political figures, such as Lincoln (2012), or they can be concerned with political movements and events such as Pride (2014). The latter is the case with Selma, which does a superb job of presenting political activism as a dramatic and engaging story.
The title of Ava DuVernay’s film indicates its remit as, rather than being called King or having a broader title such as Marches, Selma is named for the location of a specific event. In 1965, Selma, Alabama, was the site of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, for although African Americans had the right to vote institutionalised racism in southern states repeatedly blocked their attempts to register. Selma highlights this racism: Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is humiliated by a voting office clerk who demands absurd information so as to catch her out and deny her registration; Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) as well as Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Colonel Al Lingo (Stephen Root) are shameless in their prejudice and refusal to change; several scenes depict brutal and shocking racial violence. These attacks provide ample ammunition for Martin Luther King, Jnr.’s (David Oyelewo) non-violent activism, he and his supporters submitting themselves to beatings and arrests in their goal to guarantee all citizens the right to register to vote.
Selma’s great strength is its willingness to include the activists’ meetings and strategic planning, in favour of breast-beating histrionics. DeVernay wisely keeps her style reserved, while Kim Jennings and Elizabeth Keenan’s production design allows a sense of homes and community. Director of photography Bradford Young lenses much the film with a nostalgic golden light, similar to that found in Oyelowo’s other recent film, A Most Violent Year. But much like J. C. Chandor’s film, Selma is far from a staid historical curio. It is a vibrant and engaging political drama, which demonstrates the nous and understanding of King and his fellow planners and highlights how people working together, wisely and pragmatically, can affect genuine change. Oyelowo is superb as King, a man who wishes to make the world better because he cares for his fellow humans, and cares enough to rise above quick solutions or simplistic moralising. Other performances are also very fine, especially Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, long suffering but still loyal supporter of her husband’s endeavours. And what endeavours, as while Selma focuses on the strategies of political activism, it also provides stirring and inspiring sequences, allowing catharsis from the tension of its earlier scenes. It is a truly political film, both in terms of its subject matter and the manner in which this subject is presented, and all the more engaging and entertaining for it.