One of the many good things about Selma is the focus. Biopics tend to leave us with half the feelings, half the story, and half the truth. We can only imagine what someone’s life was like and being shown a snippet allows us to truly see the moments that shaped him or her. And Selma is not just a portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr., but shows us a patchwork of American history.
What allows me to see this moment in history and man in a sympathetic and emotionally ridden way than ever before are many of Selma’s editing techniques. I haven’t seen a film in a very long time with this many slow motion shots. But it’s not redundant in the way that makes the film seem common. It allows viewers to truly slow down and take a look at what is happening in this segregated Southern town. The women who follow King (David Oyelowo) and his planned marches are beaten senseless. Black men old and young are hit over the head with bats and police canes while some are even murdered and all the while the camera mostly stays back, zooms out, and allows a slow unfolding of chaos and heartbreak. These slow motion scenes also allows time for reflection. No one can deny the chaos that happens in Selma is brutal and unfair, but how is that different than some of the chaos that’s happened recently? And I’m not just talking about Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Another independent eye-opening film Fruitvale Station released last year revealed a day in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was murdered in LA on New Years Eve in 2008. The men in both films face a nightmare I can’t imagine. But the events that take place in these films and in our everyday lives don’t have to be these horrible bloody episodes that prove how unjust the system and people are. What about all the minorities that simply feel less because they are surrounded by so many superior, big mouth white people? This is specifically shown in the Selma, too, although not in slow motion. The police chief and governor of Selma make everyone’s lives harder because they are threatened by the potential rise of the “other”. Despite how strong King is with the protests and the ongoing decision making, he still looks like he feels inferior to the all the white men he’s involved with.
Even though the intense, slow motion shots in Selma are essential to our feelings and the film’s overall entertainment, the quiet scenes are also important. The silence between King and his wife Correta (Carmen Ejogo) is displayed in a beautiful and soft light. These discussions between the two seem like an argument unfolding, but what comes is the dense silence from King as he decides how to answer his distressed wife. During these moments King sits in the shadows and only half is face is lit, but the darkness doesn’t stop us from knowing and seeing his true emotions: sadness and confusion brought on by constant struggles. The same is seen when the handfuls of black people are shoved in jail after their first protest. Their bodies and faces hide in the shadows and the light shines across an arm, a cheek, or a leg every so often. It’s an eerie but powerful moment to see the dim low-key lighting corresponding to the quiet sounds or all together silence.
MLK’s life may be familiar, but others that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement are often unheard of. This film, though, shows a handful of different lives and how they were personally involved and it’s not done in a way where I feel weighted with too many stories or subplots. Yet, all the minor characters in the film whose issues are focused on could be a separate film and I hope they are eventually. And as for these stories from the past being made into films, I can’t wait for the ones about right now that will be written and displayed across screens so we don’t forget about these gaps that desperately need to shrink. We have work to do, as the film coincidentally corresponds to current events, and the first step is seeing the issues through history and never repeating them.