Let’s wind the clocks back a few decades. Actually, scratch that. Let’s wind them back a few months. In July, a police officer wrestled Eric Garner, an unarmed black man selling cigarettes illegally on the street corner, to the ground. Garner, resisting but not violently, was an asthmatic. He died. In August, the entire world was focusing on Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen who was shot and killed by a white police officer. In November, the Grand Jury decided to not indict Darren Wilson, the officer responsible, sparking mass protests and, unfortunately, violent looting and vandalism. These cases (and others like them) are proof that the ideals that Martin Luther King, Jr. imposed upon the people of the human race are far from being fully realized. This harsh truth dwells beneath Selma, the new historical drama from Ava DuVernay, which is the story of Martin Luther King’s organized march in Selma, Alabama, but also a reminder that there is still work to be done today.
But I can’t let emotions or my personal view of any possible skewing of the modern justice system dictate how I feel about a film. It’s true that there is a feeling of relevance in Selma, one that is difficult to ignore in the wake of recent events. At the same time, those feelings of relevance don’t make a movie great, and even though I think Selma is a well-acted and powerful drama, I also think that it’s one of the most overrated and overhyped films of the year. Before you dismiss my opinion, please let me explain.
Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King’s petition for equal voting rights for black citizens. After President Johnson’s constant denial and neglect of King’s appeal (it’s been debated whether or not the president’s denial was, in fact, as constant as the film suggests), King decides to lead a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. This march, its organization, and the back-and-forth between the Civil Rights leader and the U.S. president are the driving forces behind the movie, and for the most part, it works.
There are times, however, when it simply doesn’t work, from the contrived script to the just average and unforgettable supporting performances (including Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife, Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and an unrecognizable Oprah Winfrey). There are many small character moments throughout the duration of Selma (it’s a pretty long movie, by the way), and most of them are quiet or silent, matched with whispering dialogue that doesn’t feel as personable as the movie expects. On the opposite end of that, other smaller moments give us a behind the scenes look at King himself that work to the film’s advantage. These scenes do a fine job as humanizing King, eradicating the image of him we have in our minds and giving us a flawed individual who just wants change.
Even though the script contains some forgettable dialogue, character moments, and storyline conventionality, it’s impossible to walk out of Selma feeling uninspired. David Oyelowo is some kind of miracle as MLK, perfectly embodying the man and the legend, and being nearly identical in appearance and dialect. There are moments throughout the film when I actually forgot that this was an actor; and as the film concluded and various clips of the real MLK played, I found myself wondering if it was actually him or Oyelowo. It’s a spectacular performance.
Also, the movie is directed superbly, and I’m not exaggerating. Ava DuVernay, director of other smaller features, nails it with Selma. As I mentioned, the scenes between King and Johnson are riveting, and in addition, the scenes on the bridge, between the blacks and the white police officers, and everything that comes of those confrontations, are directed with gut-wrenching immediacy. Similarly, the cinematography by Bradford Young is equally astonishing. He and DuVernay pull no punches in delivering a sometimes personally filmed and other times epically shot showcase. It resembles a Tom Hooper film (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) as DuVernay positions King in the corner or very bottom of the frame, so as to let Young capture some of the bigger stuff going on behind him. It’s really an amazing film to look at.
Flaws aside, there is much to like about Selma. Sure, it’s contrived and it falls back on many typical and worn-out biopic clichés, but at the same time, it’s hard to fault a film with this much talent and historical importance. David Oyelowo is miraculous as MLK, a performance that won’t be forgotten any time in the near future, and the direction (and cinematography) are uniquely great. It feels relevant today, and “Glory,” the closing song that just won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, is cheer-worthy. It isn’t perfect, but it’s good, and it’s important that everyone sees it.
Rated PG-13 for for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey
Writer: Paul Webb
Director: Ava DuVernay
Photo credits: Wikipedia.com, AskMen.com, Yahoo.com/movies