Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Selma Movie Review

Upon a second viewing of last year’s Selma, Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King and his leading the protests in Selma, Alabama, that would ultimately lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I have warmed up to it more than when I first saw it. There was some outspoken backlash bout the Academy’s failure to nominate DuVernay for an Oscar. The same for David Oyelowo, who portrays King and carries the movie through most of its emotional highs and lows. The paltry number of nominations (a Best Picture nod and one for Best Song for which it won) was attributed by some to Hollywood’s refusal to accept black stories or to afford them the same status as stories about white people. These were rich arguments coming the year after 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar. That film was about a challenging as they come. No, I think Selma was little recognized in the awards season because it simply wasn’t as good as other movies last year. Unless people believe in affirmative action for movie awards, I see no reason Selma and its director should have bumped other worthy nominees from their recognition.


The screenplay by first-time writer Paul Webb approaches the iconic Dr. King as an examination of the dichotomy within. King was a larger-than-life civil rights leader. He inspired millions to take action. He led a movement of peaceful protest to achieve tangible results for black people in this country. He was an incredible orator with the ability to rally those listening to stand up and be counted. Then there’s King the family man with a loving and supportive wife, young children, and the occasional extra-marital affair. What sets this biopic – and I even hesitate to use that description because Selma is more historical narrative than the story of a man’s life – apart from others is that rather than try to connect two aspects of his life, Webb weaves the two together to show them as two sides of the same coin. There’s no feeble attempt to show, for example, that King’s home life was what led to his activism. Instead it’s there as a fact of his life. King was a remarkable public figure, but a rather ordinary family man simultaneously. He was loyal and loving, but flawed. His wife is not blind to his affairs and in a key scene she asks him not if he has had other women, but whether he has loved them or not. His silent response is enough to reveal his shame.

The moments between Martin and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), add texture to a movie that might otherwise have been a dull play-by-play of historic moments. Webb also finds space in the story to include scenes of Martin and his associates enjoying each other’s company and a meal. These are the scenes that make extraordinary figures into accessible human beings. They depict these people who led a movement as not much different than you and your friends getting together for a Sunday dinner or some such social gathering.

The protest scenes, the beatings, and the violence – mostly of law enforcement inflicted upon demonstrators – are essentially the action beats in the film. DuVernay handles them with some the greatest combination of unflinching looks and restraint that I can recall. The 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls is depicted briefly early in the film. Though it’s incongruent with the film’s timeline, it’s inclusion seems to be more about setting a tone for the imminent necessity of not only civil rights for black people, but the elimination of rules and laws that disenfranchised millions of southern citizens. The scene is set in such a way that by the time you realize (maybe) what’s about to happen, an explosion rips those girls, dressed in their Sunday best, to pieces before our very eyes. It tears into your heart the same way it does the victims. It is the most shocking moment in a movie full of events that defy reason and understanding. Many of the scenes of violence are handled in a similar way. The famous “Bloody Sunday” attempt of peaceful marchers to cross the Edmund J. Pettus Bridge out of Selma does not flinch from showing Alabama state troopers beating men and women with clubs, whipping them from horseback, firing tear gas on them, and kicking them while they’re down.

Selma received a lot of criticism over its depiction of President Lyndon Johnson’s (played by Tom Wilkinson) refusal to work with King in pushing voting legislation through. He is shown to be obstinate and indignant at the idea that King is still asking for more after the Civil Rights Act has already been passed. By most accounts, including civil rights leader Andrew Young (played in the film by Andre Holland), who later served as a US Congressman and UN Ambassador, the relationship between King and Johnson remained one of mutual respect and working together. DuVernay and Webb, taking a degree of artistic license that is sure to fire up controversy, have them as adversaries, each one refusing to budge to help the other achieve his own political ambitions. On the other hand, some accounts of Johnson’s personal preferences have him painted as no lover of African-Americans, but being a champion of Civil Rights for political expediency. Regardless of his motivations, Johnson was instrumental in making those changes and there’s something just a shade disrespectful to sully that image for storytelling purposes.

If Johnson is an antagonist in the story, then the outright villains are characters like Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), and in one scene FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). Sheriff Clark was a bona fide racist, a real hater of black people. Even at the end of his life, he was quoted as saying he would do it all the same again. On the other hand, Wallace, shown in the film to be a full of prejudice and hate (rightly so) recanted his old ways later in life and asked forgiveness of the black community for his actions during the Civil Rights Movement.

The film’s many quiet virtues may be the very reason it failed to receive as many accolades as some would have bestowed on it had they had the power. Selma is not a flashy film. Oyelowo’s performance is more mimicry than fully lived performance. He has King’s vocal rhythms and building cadences down perfectly when giving speeches, but those scenes are not truly who King was. Based on this telling, it looks as though the speeches were a kind of performance themselves. Ironically, had the film been more full of flash and Hollywood convention, it likely would have received more awards, but been less liked by critics. It’s a question of creating something that’s popular versus something that’s dignified. I’ll take the latter, thank you. 

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