The first few scenes of Ava DuVernay’s Selma are a fascinating mirror of the first scenes of Malcolm X.
After its fiery opening monologue, Malcolm X cuts to a scene at the barbershop in which X [before he officially becomes X] is getting his first “conk,” which involved using painful chemicals on the follicles and scalp to straighten one’s hair and make it more easily styled.
Selma opens on Martin Luther King, Jr. [David Oyelowo] getting ready to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. He doesn’t like the ascot he’s wearing and thinks it will send the wrong message to the ordinary people whose rights he fights for.
Appearance is important to both of these men and both of these films, and it’s most apparent in the brief moment their paths truly intersect.
Malcolm X would not live to see the march on Selma. He was killed just weeks before it took place. And while we never see him cross paths with King, he does meet briefly with Coretta Scott King while her husband is in jail for marching on the county courthouse. He offers his assistance to their cause by appearing more radical than King thereby presenting him as a moderate. In other words, civil rights are coming. Do you want to do it the easy way or the hard way? The Kings ultimately rebuke X’s offer—too many hurtful things were said before X had a change of heart around the time of his pilgrimage—but Coretta shares with her husband that X seemed different. Contrite, more agreeable.
Appearance is a funny thing. For much of X’s life, it’s intimately tied to identity. For King and in X’s last acts, it’s transactional. What will other people think if I look like this? If I present myself that way? If I say this idea like that? And transactional politics drive much of Selma, and indeed drove King. If we can’t get full, unequivocal civil rights, let’s focus on the right to vote. If we can’t march safely, let’s wait. In Malcolm X, after the assassination, we see King in archival footage sort of tiptoeing his way toward expressing sympathy.
Selma does a really good job at sharing a slice of King’s life. Where Malcolm X is three hours and 20 minutes of every crucial detail [and some non-crucial dancing] of the man’s life, Selma covers roughly six months. They’re a busy six months—Nobel Prize, church bombing, meeting with the president, first courthouse march in Alabama, jail, CIA surveillance and blackmail, Jimmie Lee Jackson murder, Bloody Sunday, Voting Rights Act, and finally a proper march. It’s all depicted with urgency and a surprising amount of timeliness from DuVernay.
One of the film’s other most notable aspects is the way it shows King’s general uncertainty about himself and his position. Oyelowo has the impossible task of playing one of American history’s most towering figures and bringing him down to our level. There’s a reason not many movies have been made starring Martin Luther King, Jr. ... OK, there are multiple reasons, but one is that it’s tough to make him feel like a real person. Some of Selma’s most powerful moments are when he’s trying to take out the trash in his home. [He doesn’t know where the bags are kept.] Or when he’s second guessing his decisions in the wake of an assault or death. It’s hard to see a hero struggle with himself in that way. We are sort of programmed to expect perfection from people like King, but in many ways, they’re flawed and just trying to figure it out.
Malcolm X begins to move toward this type of material, especially in the film’s final act, but it never goes all the way there, and in fact, the closing scene goes out of its way to make a case for X’s heroism. Neither approach is right or wrong, but watching these films close together is a fascinating exercise. Two people, inexorably linked, with often competing philosophies toward achieving the same goal.
You could say the same about Lee and DuVernay, each of whom achieve their goal with their respective film.