They say most historical films are more about our current time than about the time they’re set in, and for this focus-on-one-chapter-of-his-life style biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr., that turned out to be even more true than usual. Not all of the strength with which it resonates is perhaps predictable; filming started nearly two months before Mike Brown was shot(not sure how long the shoot took), though no doubt the events that have occurred this past half year had at least some influence on how things were done in post-production. Though then again, the contemporary issues it speaks to, the murder of blacks with impunity, and the suppressing of votes, have been going on a good deal longer than the white mainstream have happened to be noticing them, and so the screenplay from the start was likely written with them in mind.
But perhaps the biggest thing that dictated this movie, and resulted in its strongest points, is that it had a black director, and a female one at that. Ava DuVernay has before this mostly been a documentary filmmaker, which may be partly why large parts of the movie have a documentary-like feel(especially when real life footage is mixed in, especially at the end), including the clever move of having the FBI’s secret logged reports about King’s movements both serve as narrative and make a statement that resonates *very* strongly with the audience of today. Though it’s certainly not a documentary, as plenty of people ranting about the portrayal of LBJ have been sure to remind us. But perhaps the refusal to be nicer to the big famous white guy in the story illustrates why this film is important: like 12 Years a Slave last year, it’s the black community telling their story themselves, after all these decades of white people getting to be the ones to tell the story(and this one is the film directed by an African-American as well, which 12 Years a Slave wasn’t). And they have no qualms of showing all the ways, from uncomfortable to watch to downright violent, they were wronged. This film is pretty hard to watch sometimes.
Also, that she’s a woman is probably a very big reason Coretta Scott King, who in most retellings of the story of MLK is ignored, is a very important character her, with her own viewpoint, character arc, and one scene with another woman which gives the film a Bechdel pass(something you don’t get in very many films of this type!) in the most wonderful way. Annie Lee Cooper is also important, and Oprah Winfrey vanishes so well into her I honestly didn’t even realize it was her until the credits.
You do see some things that are normal for an Oscarbait biopic; it’s shot in the style, and has scenes and types of clashes between characters common to the genre. But this movie goes beyond that, in it’s way. It’s got more than one reason you should see it.