Up next is Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical drama about civil unrest in the South during the 1950s. Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth, Selma is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, and brief strong language.
Selma recalls the incredible civil rights movement to secure equal rights for people of all races led by Dr. Martin Luther King (Oyelowo) in 1965. Following King and his followers in their triumphs and struggles during the violent fight to change history, Selma highlights the epic march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
9.0 out of 10
One of the biggest storylines of the Academy Award nominations was Selma’s snubbing. It was shut out of the Best Director Category and Best Actor category, both of which were considered virtual locks for nominations. Public outcry followed, with many criticizing the Academy for not recognizing diversity (all of the 20 acting nominations went to Caucasian actors, and the only non-white director nominated was Alejandro González Iñárritu). The truth is the academy is almost 94% white and 76% male with an average age well over 60. If you don’t have diversity in the voters you’re not going to see diversity in the nominees. It’s high time that the Academy makeup represents the diversity that exists society.
Selma is also the movie of the moment. Yes, it recounts one of the most historical events and periods of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is also largely a musing on modern racism and the fact that we have not yet realized the ideals King strived for. It comes at a time when racial tensions are incredibly high – with the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown embroiling the country in heated conflict—which makes it all the more powerful.
From a purely cinematic viewpoint, Selma’s snubbing came as a major surprise. The film boasts major talents, with the likes of Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, David Oyelowo, and Tom Wilkinson.
Oyelowo was fantastic as Dr. Martin Luther King. He successfully conveyed the nuances of King’s personalities and the stark differences of his public and private personas. As King, Oyelowo made grand speeches with a booming voice in front of both hostile and sympathetic crowds but also excelled at his quieter, more intimate scenes. 2014 was a big year for Oyelowo, appearing in Selma, Interstellar, and A Most Violent Year. Here’s to hoping that his success continues in the future.
Tim Roth was also exceptional. This is his first non-Tarantino film that I’ve seen, and he played the snaky, repulsive, racist governor to perfection. Just the way he delivered his lines, with drawn out vowels and overt arrogance was fantastic.
What really held Selma together was its direction. The camera work was sweeping and precise. Ava DuVernay made some bold choices, most notably her decision to film some scenes in slow motion. It was a jarring break from the movie’s continuity but I think, given the situations in which DuVernay employed this tactic, such a sensation was exactly the point.
Unfortunately for Selma, I think the movie ended on somewhat of a sour note. Much of the film had centered around King’s acceptance of others and inhuman willingness to overcome the inequities of society, all while not shying away from the physical and social toll that his leadership put on him and his imperfections as a man. Selma ended on a moment of triumph, with (mild spoiler alert) King and his followers arriving in Montgomery, and then logically recognized the tragic end to King’s life in epilogue text. I definitely agree with this choice; a film about King’s legacy should not end with his untimely death. However, where I draw issue is with the rest of the epilogue text, specifically with regard to Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth. Without a doubt, Roth’s character was vile and venomous. In the epilogue text, the film stated that Wallace was the victim of an assassination attempt that left him partially paralyzed, and said that only then he come to adopt a more accepting view of race. I don’t have the correct phrasing, but the way it read on the screen was that the movie-makers were happy about his peril and were almost looking at it as “he got what was coming to him”. It read as vengeful and acerbic, which, while absolutely Wallace was, as I said, vile and venomous, goes completely against King’s teachings of tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness.
Plenty of biopics show the turning point of a movement because it’s easy. It’s easy and satisfying. There’s enough space for struggle and for resolution. But Selma does not place itself during the actual signing of any civil rights acts nor does it show a string of victories for MLK. Instead, the films opts to show a struggle which, for its purposes, is the exact thing it needs to depict.
In racial politics, Martin Luther King has, quite understandably, transcended human form. He basically relayed what 90% of the American people want for every race: stability, kindness and fairness. He took what seemed like a ridiculous movement to many racists and catalyzed into one of the biggest chunks of American history. What’s more, he did all without violence or acrimony. He upheld his beliefs for peace. For this, many have remembered King as pacifist and a god.
Those people certainly aren’t wrong but Selma chooses a different route for King; a more human one. And while it’s probably much easier to document an admired yet controversial leader like Malcolm X’s strategic maneuvers, Selma chooses to show the personal battles King had to fight (Not resolve) to win the one against oppression. The film rightfully locks in to but one historical event and delves into the backroom politics that had to happen. Consequently, David Oyelowo’s King becomes much more of tactician than an activist for the film’s focused purposes.
Thus, we get to see all of the family moments MLK sacrificed, the fellow protestors he had to bicker with and the leaders he had to sway to ultimately launch his cause. It ain’t always pretty. While we typically knott all of the racial organizations of the era together, Selma depicts them as individual teams with their own scopes and interests that are loosely tied together. But the film largely recognizes that these turbulent moments make us appreciate the lighter ones. When we see the young activists of SNCC quarrel with the older organizers of the SLCC, it makes their compromise seem a lot more significant. Likewise, when we see all King had to do behind closed doors to secure his cause, it enhances his image as a man who was tethered to his beliefs in widespread equality.
Plenty of historical movies regarding race are also criticized for featuring more white characters than there were present in real life. Some films have additionally been condemned for having said white characters actually save the day rather than the black figures the filmmakers claim to be focusing on. Whether you agree with this criticism or not, there’s no denying that Selma is firmly focused on black leaders and sugarcoating history to make people comfortable plays no part in the movie. The plot is rife with realistic tensions on boths sides that, again, only serve to make the somewhat infrequent moments of agreement more rewarding.
In fact, and this is an odd thing to say after I lauded the portrayal of MLK, I’m not sure whether this really should be lumped in as just an MLK biopic. King runs the show, yes, and he embodies the wishes of an entire movement but the more I recount this film, the more convinced I am that it is simply about the strength of peaceful protest. The movie is exactly what it says on the poster: Selma. Civil disobedience, speeches and marches in Selma. With King as its captain, I think Selma’s biggest purpose is to prove the power of demonstration which is quite an interesting angle after the Arab Springs, Occupy movements and moments of national unrest the past few years.
Where does it rank amongst the other historical films of the year? Well, it’s quite a few notches above Unbroken. Just a bit further than American Sniper though Bradley Cooper certainly holds his own with Oyelowo’s (Which was criminally snubbed by the Academy) which puts it about on par with Imitation Game: a ranking I’m comfortable with. I’m certain grateful for the flurry of powerful nonfiction films but they’ve been exhausting to watch. Still, square off some time to get a front seat to the politics behind Selma.