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Selma : A Review


Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, is the story of the events leading up to, and including, the historic civil rights march led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

The film stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, with Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lydon Johnson, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace and Stephen James as John Lewis, to name just a few of the actors in featured supporting roles.

I admit that I was not all that excited to see Selma, and no, that does not mean I am a racist, but it does mean that I am a cynical cinephile. The reason I was trepidatious about seeing it is because studio films about civil rights, or racial issues can sometimes be predictable, heavy-handed, poorly made and drenched in sentimentality. My cynicism is hard earned, for example, in the last few years I had to sit through the absolutely dreadful Lee Daniel's The Butler and Spielberg's overbearing Lincoln (which are studio films, unlike two independent films of similar genres, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station, both excellent films). Lincoln and The Butler were so ham-handed as to be cringe-worthy and embarrassingly laughable. So I assumed that Selma would be just another poorly executed piece of propaganda, a left wing version of the right wing propaganda of American Sniper. I have to say, after seeing Selma, I was very pleasantly surprised, it was considerably better than I thought it would be. Now, to be clear, Selma isn't a great movie, for instance, it won't make my top ten of the year, but it is a well-made film and is head and shoulders above recent studio attempts to dramatically re-tell the story of the civil rights struggle in cinema. 

The main reason that Selma exceeded my low expectations was the performance of David Oyolowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. In some films of note this year, we have seen performances that were more akin to mimicry than to acting, The Theory of Everything as an example. Playing MLK is a big juicy trap for an actor to embrace only the distinct external appearance of King and avoid the critical internal life of the man. Oyolowo deftly avoids the imitation trap. His King is an actual person, grounded and genuine. While the script, and the film, do keep pushing for a version of MLK as Saint Martin, Oyolowo is able to keep King's feet on the ground and his halo in his back pocket for the most part. Oyolowo doesn't imitate MLK, he approximates him, his speech, his appearance, his demeanor. Oyolowo's acting is the thing that keeps Selma from veering off into the land of heavy handed sentimentality. Yes, there is still a streak of sentimentality in the film, but it is considerably muted by Oyolowo's great work.

There are two truly superb scenes in Selma. The first involves King and his wife Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo. In the scene, Selma does something that sets it apart from other films about MLK, it not only acknowledges his philandering, but holds him to account for it. Yes, more could have been explored on this topic, but the reality is, this is not a straight up MLK bio-pic, but rather MLK is the lead character in the story of the Selma civil rights struggle. The scene, in which Coretta plays an audiotape sent to her by the FBI of MLK having sex with another woman, is exceedingly well done. In it, we see King as we have never seen him before...he is ashamed. Ashamed of himself, of his behavior, of his weakness and of his betrayal of his wife. Shame is something that is difficult to play subtly, but Oyolowo masterfully embodies the depth of King's shame without ever having to speak. You see his energy and breathing change, his posture shift, his eyes slightly downward, his shame is tangible, the tension in the scene and their marriage is palpable. This scene alone elevates Selma from an everyday 'issues' movie to an authentic and intimate look at actual, real people struggling with genuine issues, both political and domestic. Oyolowo's and Ejogo's work in this scene brings an honest humanity to Selma that resonates through the rest of the film.

The second artistically crucial scene involves President Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth. In the scene, LBJ is pushing Wallace to give up his harsh racist positions and give the black community the voting rights MLK is demanding. What makes this scene so powerful is that Roth's Wallace is not a raving, mad, foaming at the mouth, wild-eyed, lunatic. Roth makes Wallace a  logical, rational, reasonable man, who simply will not budge on his, in his mind, principled stance. The really interesting thing in the scene is that Wallace is calm and measured as he explains why he won't give blacks the vote in Alabama. He says in essence, that once you give blacks an inch in terms of rights, they will demand a mile. This speech from Wallace is, logical, rational and reasoned, and also unconscionably racist…yet totally prescient and historically correct. As history teaches us, once you actually give people the rights they deserve, they will demand even more of the rights that they deserve, human beings are funny like that. Roth's Wallace is a highlight of the portrayal of southern whites in the film, because he doesn't come across as a one-dimensional moron or redneck, just a principled man whose principles happen to be wrong. The same cannot be said for the other smaller southern white roles, but that is a common fault in films where there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Thankfully, Roth avoids stereotyping Wallace like the other southern white characters are stereotyped. The film is much better for both Roth's and Wilkinson's work in it. Nuance can often-times be sacrificed in order to clarify or heighten the drama, but Roth's work as Wallace brought some much needed subtly and restraint, and it is an anchor that helps keep the film from drifting entirely into caricature for all it's white southern characters.

There is a third scene that I wish was in the film but unfortunately wasn't. Malcolm X, played by Nigel Thatch, comes to Selma just weeks before his own assassination, to symbolically put pressure on Wallace to change his position. Malcolm X has a meeting with Coretta King because MLK is in jail. They discuss why he, Malcolm X, is there and what he wants to do. It is never shown but only referenced later, that Malcolm X gives a speech in Selma while King is in jail. I don't know why they didn't show the speech. I think it would have been a great counter point to MLK's non-violence to show Malcolm X embodying the alternative to that approach. I know Selma has a lot of ground it needed to cover, but Malcolm X's speech would have been a worthy addition to the strategic thinking the film is trying to dramatize. 

One other problem with the film, which is nearly fatal, is that Oprah shows up in it. There is absolutely no reason for Oprah to be in this film. None. She is brutally distracting. You aren't thinking she is her character, you are thinking she is Oprah, and you see her trying so hard to act and to let you, the viewer, know she is Oprah and she is acting. This is the second film in a row, Lee Daniel's The Butler being the first, where Oprah plays a woman who strikes a man. I wish Oprah would take the time to learn to act, because she looks so uncomfortable, awkward and fake when she takes a swings at people, that it is horrifying. I know people love Oprah, but Oprah is having the opposite effect on the films she is in than she is hoping to have. She distracts and undermines the important stories attempting to be told. I encourage Oprah to continue to produce films, but leave the acting to others. I know for a fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women out there who could have played Oprah's part considerably better than she did. I genuinely wish she would give other people the opportunity that she has never earned.

As for actors who do deserve to be there and do excellent work, Stephen James as John Lewis stands out for his really compelling performance. Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams is also very good. Pierce is an actor that just elevates every single scene he steps into. I loved him in HBO's The Wire and always think it is a good idea to cast him in anything when possible.

Selma is also greatly enhanced by it's visuals. Cinematographer Bradford Young gives the film a distinct texture and optical vibrancy that is all too often missing from these types of films. Too often films of this genre take the easy road and create a flat, dull and stale look for the film (I'm looking at you, Lee Daniel's The Butler!!). Young's work is equally as essential to elevating the film from the mundane to the worthy as David Oyolowo's performance. Bradford Young also did quality work on A Most Violent Year as well this year. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the years to come.

A quick comment on the controversy dealing with potential historical inaccuracies in Selma. Joseph Califano Jr., a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on December 26, 2014 taking issue with how Selma portrayed his former boss. Cailfano claims that the film falsely portrays LBJ as being at odds with MLK over the voting rights act. I admit that I am not very well read or historically literate on the subject in question. I would encourage you to read Califano's op-ed (LINK), and research the subject and counter-arguments yourself. I cannot speak as to whether the claim of Califano is an issue with the history in the film or an issue with perspective.  What I will say though, is that the temptation to alter history in order to heighten drama, is one that must be overcome. In film, historical events can be shaped to give a narrative more clarity or to give alternative perceptions of historical events, but it should not be altered in order to heighten drama or a character's value. This is a deceptive practice, and it is one clear sign that a film is a piece of propaganda meant to persuade rather than an honest dramatic exploration. Zero Dark Thirty is a great example of a film that simply contorts history in order to make a political point. Zero Dark Thirty was a really insidious piece of government propaganda, and we are all diminished for it having been so well received. At the end of the day, Truth matters, whether we like the truth or not. Bending truth to meet our hopes, whether on film, or in real life, is not a sign of strength, but one of weakness. To be clear, I am not claiming that Selma is historically inaccurate, shamefully I must I plead ignorance on that issue, but what I am saying is that I hope that Selma maintained it's integrity and didn't take the cheap, easy and ultimately deceptive road of distorting history in order to heighten drama. MLK's legacy certainly doesn't need the distortion of history in order to be legitimate and powerful, and it would be an error to manipulate history in order to enhance his already remarkable achievements. 

In conclusion, Selma is much better than I thought it would be, and is worth seeing, if for no other reason than the really magnetic and authentic performance from David Oyolowo. At the end of the day, Selma, like American Sniper, may just be a piece of personal propaganda, but unlike American Sniper, it is an exceedingly well made and finely crafted piece of propaganda.