Movie Review: Selma (2014)

JPSELMA-articleLargeWhen it comes to movies about the complexities of race, the politics of repression, or representations of the brave pioneers who paved the way for progress, Hollywood has an incurable eagerness to exploit race and self-promote their effortless hindsight position of being on what is deemed “the right side of history.” Through morally dubious and self-congratulatory attitudes that have taken creative shape in film ranging from the overly sentimental The Help, the fragmented and laughable Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and the academically condescending The Great Debaters, filmmakers, audience participants, and pandering politicians have always been in a rush to righteously claim a progressive inheritance from the Civil Rights movement—an inheritance that they don’t usually earn or ever truly understand in context—that leans towards the superficial. This cinematic history of thinly constructed reflections on an era that is rich with heroic moments, tragic obstacles, and worthy character portraits is probably what makes Ava DuVernay’s third feature Selma hit with such profound insight and nuanced emotionality. Part biopic, part grassroots procedural, and part historical moral lesson relating to knowing your history lest you’re doomed to repeat it, Selma invokes a populous nature and a bracingly self-assured presentation that enlightens us on the political gamesmanship, the rancorous debate, and the heart filled resilience of the Civil Rights movement. History as shown through DuVernay’s conscientious film flows with suspense and often times some surprise as it captures the uncertainty of the time with a blend of efficient storytelling and emphatic complimentary film techniques that makes it a thrilling piece of rhetorical cinema. Though there are lessons to be learned and reminders to our national promises that should be kept within Selma it seems most will prematurely associate the circumstances and the messages to current events, which in its prematurity should be sided for in actuality that belittles the sacrifices of those who marched while also showcases a reactionary ignorance in seeing Jimmie Lee Jackson in all tragic victims. Selma shouldn’t be mistaken for a representation of modernist ills or a rallying protest manifesto because it’s simply a fine representation of cinema; it’s a full bodied entity of a time and place that ignites its terrifying impediments, its grief stained victories, and its raw political realities with a rare touch of gracefulness.

What separates Selma from its Civil Rights predecessors is its unwillingness to be confined to bullet point dramatics and avoids the temptation to recreate the “Greatest Hits” triumphs of the movement allowing the film to embrace ideas rather than superficial sentiment. Narrowing the scope of the film to the three marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol of Montgomery, Paul Webb’s script—combined with DuVernay’s uncredited rewrites—finds an organic dynamism that balances the volatile public events with the private and deeply intimate considerations behind the scenes. Seizing on a particular historical moment is what makes DuVernay’s film more of a collective enterprise rather than a character focused portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) which it also accomplishes by putting him in service to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference cause rather than being the clichéd focus of it. The film opens with an intimate scene between MLK and his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) as he’s shown as a crusader willing to succumb to self-mockery, a powerfully humbling aspect of his character, as he’s about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Juxtaposing this visage of the movement’s success after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the mounting dread of four young school girls descending the staircase of a church gives Selma its significant moral stakes where every apparent success has a subsequent reminder that more work towards the winning of hearts and minds needs to be done. Webb and DuVernay’s script captures the essence of the Civil Rights movement through tactical march planning, behind the scenes debate, and the battle between political compromise versus goal reaching determination as the narrative weaves through the movement’s idealism and the practical calculations that come with it. Selma might have Martin Luther King Jr. at the center of its events, whether it’s debating the importance of his movement with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) or standing in front of the marching crowd on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but really it’s a portrait of a raw, volatile political reality that shines a light on numerous crusaders involved as the film’s narrative branches go beyond what is simply confined to the frame. Webb’s script and DuVernay’s revisions possess a rare clarity of historical events and a well-established coherence for emphatic storytelling making a refined piece of cinema that understands the importance of its place and the depiction of its characters.

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For all its narrative ingenuity and thematic confidence Selma’s strength is really found in its cinematic presentation; a clever use of visual rhetoric and spectacular dramatic flair that gives the viewer an all-encompassing visceral experience of being fully immersed into the Civil Rights battle of the 60s. The use of framing, whether it’s the pronounced tilted angles in a conversation between George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Al Lingo (Stephen Root) or the thoughtful placement of the camera behind Martin Luther King Jr. as he marches with the crowd, ignites an intimate and poetic sense of technical work that visually states what doesn’t need to be overtly mentioned. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Pariah, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is able to find the balance between the darkened shadows of tragedy and the glowing resilience of success as the lighting, framing, and movements of the camera effectively capture each and every searing dramatic moment from the horrific, warlike protest brutality that invokes Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin to King’s impassioned Church speeches. DuVernay isn’t a passive director, as seen in her first two features I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, so her presence is guiding every eloquent motion and every expressive visual touch, especially in the haunting reenactment of the Birmingham school girl’s explosion where a use of poetic slow-motion becomes a more wrenching tool than had it been depicted in the usual graphic and desensitized way most films succumb to. And though the film captures what it’s like to be part of a collective action and activist roots, where physical safety and one’s life may be put on the line for a greater cause, it’s the intimate behind the curtain scenes that give the public devastation its powerful significance. Most notably are the sequences of King himself as the film unveils through quiet assuredness a reluctant crusader who has moments of self-doubt and personal weakness shown through subjective reaction and confrontational experience, the latter being an emotionally grueling sequence of King paralyzed listening to his infidelity on a tape alongside his wife Coretta. But that showcases Selma’s multitasking effectiveness as it blends the public pioneering essence of King as well as his quiet, self-mocking humility as an actual human being rather than the assumed saint as preached in our education development. DuVernay allows Selma to organically embrace its biopic essence, its activist roots, and its political realities of a time and place without faltering on any of its fractured elements creating a rarely formed whole piece of cinema.

Performance in a historical drama require so much conviction, confidence, and spirit because it’s exceptionally difficult to capture living, breathing human beings, especially ones whom we have numerous video representation of their actions, mannerisms, and essence. It’s especially difficult when you’re denied the use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual words, which is an aspect that sort of deprives the film from an assured authenticity but DuVernay turned this limitation into an aspect of freeing creativity by rewriting his words into a familiar cadence rather than its known whole. Taking on the challenge of reigniting Martin Luther King Jr.’s undeniable spirit is British actor David Oyelowo who manages the task with exceptional clarity bringing a refined illumination to the private life of the crusader while also embodying the public passionate bombast of his spiritual delivery. It’s a performance of physical immersion and linguistic nuance as Oyelowo loses himself in the visage of the known statesman and also captures the Southern inflections and spiritual cadences of his speech. The representation of King in Selma is one of an organizer rather than an orator, which compliments the film’s focus on the collective spirit of the grassroots endeavors in the name of Voting Rights. Complimenting his presence is Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife, closest confidante, and life advisor Coretta Scott King who credibly matches his creeping self-doubt with needed resilience. The introduction of other characters from Reverend Hosea Williams (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce), Diane Nash (Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson), and Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) are all capably performed and in depth to the point where their stories are worthy for more examination giving us perhaps some semblance of hope that these worthy fighters can garner their own biopic reflections. Of course the White authority figures are represented with cartoonish villainy to the point of ridiculousness though warranted ridiculousness when viewing the likes of George Wallace (an unctuous and sly Tim Roth) and J. Edgar Hoover (a stoically disgusted Dylan Baker) through this Civil Rights lens. And though there are some miscast characters, most notably Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson and Stephan James as an angry one-dimensional John Lewis, Selma works in its collective character tapestry by giving all these characters their moments, their say, and their participation in the events at the heart of the film.

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In taking the wise Steven Spielberg Lincoln approach in narrowing the scope of its subject into a moment that defines their character, Selma embraces the marches and protests for Voting Rights as a launching pad for a character study that represents a larger representation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts. However, it’s also an examination of collective participation in a movement that goes beyond one man’s dream into a practical execution on what that idealistic dream entails because one man simply isn’t enough for a movement’s success. Ava DuVernay’s film should be positively seen for what it is and that is a powerful immersion into a volatile political reality that showcases its moral imperatives, its rancorously debated positions, and its difficult executions, both in personal motivation and collective agreement. There are lessons to be learned from Selma and it’s an important reminder of what can happen when authority suppresses our known rights, but it’s mainly a film that invokes the grief, the anger, and the attitude of a particular time and place and not something that should be confused for modern allegory (a defining feature that would fail in any sort of litmus test). Ava DuVernay’s third feature turns out to be her best as it possesses a passion for material, an artistry of vision, and a moral insight towards its depicted events that effectively involves us in its portrait of collective resilience that is cleverly executed and emotionally captivating.

Grade: A-

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Comments
One Response to “Movie Review: Selma (2014)”
  1. I found Selma to suffer deeply from all of the flaws you associated with movies of this type. None of the performances revealed a thing about the characters. In addition, I came away feeling deprived of any real insight into Martin Luther King or the men and women around. The dialogue felt formalistic and phony. The choices for Johnson and Wallace were, simply, weird, by actors who couldn’t even pull of the accents. It felt superficial and amateurish.

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