Violence and Glory in Ava DuVernay’s Selma

Paste's 2014 Film Person of the Year

Movies Features

Slasher movies and apocalyptic tales have at least one thrilling plot device in common—senseless violence. Moviegoers are captivated by these stories because they invite us into some terrifying fantasy where the inevitable end is nigh. A crazed killer is on the loose, or some atmospheric shift is threatening to destroy the Earth, or zombies (or aliens or alien zombies) are wiping out whole cities—and there’s something compelling about this. Why, exactly, do we find these horror stories entertaining? What concealed death wishes do they reveal in part? What visions of our final days and how we’d spend them do they impart? Perhaps it’s thrilling to think about who we’d be if, every day we woke up knowing that it might be our last—that the big bad was coming, or was here, and we might have to face him today.

It’s tempting to say that director Ava DuVernay has made one of the best horror movies of all time, because Selma is, in many ways, a terrifying, suspenseful picture full of senseless violence and, imbued with a near-constant sense of doom. But DuVernay challenges our movie-going penchant for such a narrative, with a not-so-gentle reminder that, for second-class citizens in America, that threat of violence was once a daily reality. If you were a black American during the Civil Rights movement, the big bad was coming—whether your hands were behind your head, whether you were non-violent, whether you were breaking the law, or not.

Coretta Scott King speaks to her husband of a “cloud of death” in Selma, and that cloud hung over the film as well—precariously, perfectly, until it exploded violently, over and over again. Four little girls, Jimmie Lee Jackson, the protestors at Bloody Sunday, and on and on. In fact, the most prominent distinction between this film and other horror movies (aside from the fact that this is a biopic) is that, alongside violence there stood something else that brought audiences to tears. Many theater-goers experienced that rare moment when a movie ends, and not a soul rises to leave the theatre. There’s power in the expression of glory. With Selma DuVernay reminds us that violence and glory go hand-in-hand. In fact, if we had time for a little Jacques Derrida interval, we might even call them suppléments, where one invites and also, simultaneously, seems to usurp, challenge, or attempt to extinguish the other.

That DuVernay found a way to tell a story of the complex relationship between violence and glory, as exhibited in the unique world of Martin Luther King Jr., and during the unique time of the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, proves that she is a masterful and dauntless auteur. A movie that could have been a mere biopic about a historical figure or moment instead became a film about the overwhelming experience of violence and glory—and how the experience of one, and the promise of another, can incite a political movement. While many filmmakers have explored these concepts, few have done so with both small and massive scopes, and with such care for the intricate parts of a grand story. In her attention to the subtle narratives often left out of war movies and Civil Rights narratives, and other movies about the (black) American experience, DuVernay offers a revolutionary new way of creating a narrative work. For her achievement with Selma, a film that seemed predestined to arrive in 2014, she is Paste Magazine’s Film Person of the Year.

After Selma, it may be difficult to read Martin Luther King, Jr. as the pacifist leader of a non-violent movement. Very early on in the story, when we first see King (played by David Oyelowo, who seamlessly disappears into this role) face off against Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), it’s clear that he is not opposed to violence itself, and does not believe in avoiding it. That is to say, while he preaches non-violence to his own supporters and followers, he knows he is involved in a violent affair. And as a political strategist, he knows the more violence visibly exacted against the people of the movement, the more white American supporters he will gain. Selma introduces us to a far more radical leader than many of us were taught to believe existed in Martin, and therefore problematizes the traditional Martin vs. Malcolm binary. In fact, Malcolm X (played by Nigel Thatch) makes a brief appearance, and he is practically subdued in the presence of Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), while King fumes in a prison cell. With Selma, a conventional understanding of the movement simply will not do.

So, even as King mourned the violent deaths and brutal attacks that plagued his cause, there’s an implication that he believed in violence, in that he understood the political leverage it gave him. Under King’s rule there would be no senseless violence, as every attack had a specific and appropriate political response. He took that violence and worked to get it into the papers, on the front pages that would greet the President when he sat down each morning to breakfast. An assault of bloody images on the American consciousness is what he fought for, and DuVernay’s lens commits a similar act of necessary violence on her audience. Such violence, with a particular purpose of elevated consciousness in mind—well, we might call that an attempt to transform those dark clouds of death into “glory.”

DuVernay’s treatment of violence is also unique because of her ability to stay true to the unflinching reality of an attack on children or a nonviolent protestor, while imbuing that truth with her own artistry. She’s not interested in simply alluding to the violence done on four little girls at church—that blast came mid-sentence, just as we were being taken in by innocent chatter about how to press one’s hair properly. It’s a blow to the moviegoer, who thought he was there to experience the Civil Rights movement, when he is really there to experience—as much as he can—violence. And one shock leads to another as DuVernay’s lens lingers on the floating Sunday dresses in the air, drifting and aflame. That she lingers, is a testament to her patience as a storyteller. And in that patience, this act of violence we witness suddenly begins to transform into something else.

Any filmmaker will tell you that patience cannot be underestimated in this craft, and it’s difficult to imagine the steps taken to embrace this quality in a story that had so much ground to cover. In addition to presenting a more radical—but still intelligent, and controlled (and filled with a very human self-doubt, at times)—King, DuVernay takes Coretta Scott King out of the supportive wife trope, and gives us an activist who is more prepared than she knows (her “preparation” has a great history, a lesson she learns from another small, but powerful, scene with Amelia Boynton, played by Lorraine Toussaint). One of the most violent scenes in the film is also one of the quietest, where Mrs. King confronts her husband about his infidelities. One can’t help but liken the moment to something out of a Virginia Woolf novel, where what is unsaid causes the most violence. The character’s stream of consciousness is almost palpable, but DuVernay and Ejogo both exercise an incredible amount of restraint. In the quiet of the King house, it’s like a bomb has gone off. Here, DuVernay chooses silence over sensationalism, and the result is practically deafening.

There are moments of reprieve from the violence (silent, metaphorical, and otherwise) in Selma, and the audience clings to it, gratefully. For you could say that, like King, DuVernay has not come to bring peace, but a sword—and there are times where she almost seems to dare the audience to look away from the more troubling events. These reprieves in Selma also remind us that a strong movement is like a strong film or stage production, where there are no small parts. Niecy Nash brings to life Richie Jean Jackson, an educator whose house—and excellent cooking—became the headquarters (and haven) for King and the Selma movement.

But perhaps the most memorable reprieve comes in the form of a late-night phone call King makes to a close friend. He says he needs to hear “the voice of the Lord,” and so gospel great Mahalia Jackson (played by singer Ledisi) rises out of her slumber to sing his favorite song, “Precious Lord.” Now, this was a song that Jackson sang, at King’s request, at Civil Rights rallies (and she would go on to sing it at his own funeral, in April 1968), and it could have made for an incredible, musical film moment on a much grander scale. Instead, DuVernay focuses in on the true intimacy of this song in King’s history. And in doing so, we see the true meaning of this song for him. As much as he embraces the performative aspects of his work—as much as he needs the headlines and the big names at the protests—in the midnight hour, so to speak, it’s “the voice of the Lord” (the voice of a woman) that allows him to keep his eyes on the prize. And Ledisi’s vocal performance as Jackson also works in an interesting way with this theme of strength in patience. “Precious Lord” becomes a powerhouse gospel anthem (if there is such a thing—my grandmother would probably not approve of such a phrase) under Jackson’s stylings, and her slow-moving delivery inspires a sense of tragedy in the song that is completely lost in any uptempo delivery (no offense, Al Green). Ledisi and DuVernay mimic this approach, in a scene that—though brief—conveys the significance of King’s quieter moments.

While such moments offer a glimpse into his personal life, our Andy Crump pointed out in his review of the film that “this is not the life story of Martin Luther King Jr.” nor is this “MLK Begins.” For, in a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, the assumed martyr is Martin Luther King Jr. DuVernay, instead, chooses to focus on the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a new name for many of us, but one which we won’t forget. Keith Stanfield is also a name to commit to memory, for his performance in the film, as the young activist, killed in front of his mother and grandfather during a peaceful protest, is unforgettable. Early in the film he sees King for the first time in a crowd of people, and reaches out, as if to touch the hem of his garment, and there’s a fire in his eyes that foreshadows a violent end. Like the church bombing, however, DuVernay’s lens invites strange nuance in the most tragic of scenes. We see Jimmie Jackson go down, shot dead by a police officer (it’s very clear these officials are the big bad for the unarmed black men and women in Selma—old and young), but the restaurant where he sought refuge has these photos of other black men on the wall. As Jimmie slowly goes down, his back against the wall, the photos do not falter. DuVernay suggests that, in the face of violence, there is legacy. We return to the theme of a seemingly senseless act of violence absorbed by the movement and transformed into a moment of glory. By the film’s conclusion we learn that Jimmie Jackson’s grandfather—well into his ’80s—goes on to become the first in his family to vote. Glory hallelujah, indeed.

DuVernay’s commitment to these smaller, compelling narratives also exists outside of her directorial duties, as we’ve seen with her production company AFFRM. This year they produced Nailah Jefferson’s documentary Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Point a la Hache, which shone a bright light on the marginalized, largely African-American bayou communities affected by the BP oil spill (and the role of the government in their continued disenfranchisement). 25 to Life, Mike L. Brown’s documentary about a victim of HIV who kept his status secret for many years, is another film that may not have been made, without the vision of DuVernay and her team.

After the success of last year’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Academy Award Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, it’s been suggested that we don’t need any more films about the horrors of the black experience in America. It’s true that these films are frightening, and difficult to watch, especially for those of us who lived through some version of these historical truths or heard about them from family members growing up. But these stories are passed down for their continued social and political relevance, and Selma shows us how one storyteller’s vision can reshape our understanding of a popular subject we thought we knew well. In the same way that learning about slavery from a history book is not the same as experiencing Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the Civil Rights movement can and should be understood and studied under other lenses. DuVernay’s approach is groundbreaking, because historical fact, cinematic artistry and emotionally-driven performances all seem to take center stage, just as each character, from Jimmie Lee to Martin Luther, carries the story. As a result, the history books, the Civil Rights documentaries and our previous understanding of the movement are rendered incomplete without Selma. And the fact that we still don’t have a movie centered entirely on the stories of Jimmie Lee Jackson, or Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey’s character), or Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton means that DuVernay may very well have inspired a new generation of filmmakers to continue telling these important stories. We do need more narratives like this, and perhaps it will take more filmmakers who have, themselves, experienced marginalization in their field and in their lives, to bring these stories to the big screen. For, although they are violent and difficult, we must see Bloody Sunday, so that we can appreciate that final and third, glorious march from Selma to Montgomery.

In directing a dramatic, political biopic, and imbuing it with the qualities of a thriller, an action film, and even a horror movie, DuVernay reminds us that making a film—regardless of the subject—is almost always a political act. Where you stand, who you choose to work with, the message of the piece (for there is always a received message, whether that is the intention of the filmmaker or not)—all of this likens a filmmaker to a political leader. For her artistic commitment to the cause of Selma—a commitment which we saw in every scene, from the opening shot of King tying the ascot, to his final invocation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—we stand behind Ava DuVernay’s movement. Considering that this is, in many ways, just the beginning of her filmmaking journey, the film world can anticipate more de-marginalization, and more intricate and intimate retellings of history. Through DuVernay’s lens, our eyes have seen an unforgettable violence and glory, and—as Selma heads for a wide release in 2015, and the great possibility of attention from the Academy—we’d like to think her truth is marching on.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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