It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Why not celebrate this American hero and work on your storytelling craft—by watching Selma?
I’ve been doing a breakdown of the movie for my online Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop. The film has a wildly ambitious goal: to depict the monolith of U.S. racism; to educate its audience about King, a key civil rights battle, and the history of voter suppression in America; to break the history down into understandable segments to change the hearts and minds of its audience; and to prompt present-day action by awakening both rage and inspiration.
Director Ava DuVernay brings not just her brilliance but some serious documentary chops to this movie. Her films 13th and When They See Us are also must-sees for this moment.
Screenwriter Paul Webb was inspired to write the script from talks with Dick Goodwin, a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson (and husband of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin).
When I do film breakdowns in live workshops or class, I screen the film and talk over it. What I suggest here is you watch the whole film just to experience it, and then watch it again 15 minute sequence by 15 minute sequence.
In this post, I’ll jump-start that process for you by breaking down Sequence One.
First I want to point out two general techniques that the filmmakers are using to accomplish their huge goal of portraying the evil of racism and effecting intellectual, emotional, and political change.
1. UNITY of time, place and action. I’ve always thought biopics are maybe the hardest genre to get right. But this isn’t a biopic, and it announces that in the title. It’s not called King, it’s called Selma.
The filmmakers have chosen one event to illuminate King’s life. That is classic UNITY: a storytelling technique detailed by the first story structure guru: Aristotle, in his book The Poetics. Selma focuses on one representative event to illuminate King’s life, the civil rights battle, and the ongoing historical struggle against racism.
2. The KIND of story it is: they filmmakers have chosen the structural form of a war story and used storytelling conventions of great war movies to keep the stakes high and emotional tensions fraught.
And it also deftly presents a dystopian society, as we see in dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games. But in Selma this dystopian society is real, and we’re all living in it.
Let’s look at the Set Up in Sequence One.