The Good: Moments of performance, Generally engaging story, Some good character choices
The Bad: Some unfortunate casting/performance choices, Thematically heavy-handed
The Basics: Selma makes for a surprisingly bland historical drama that tries to capitalize on Awards’ Season, rather than telling a timeless and important story of the Civil Rights Movement!
Almost two years ago, I read and was quite inspired by, The Autobiography Of Martin Luther King Jr. (reviewed here!) and it awoke in me the sensation of just how far the Civil Rights Movement has to go before all people are free (though my perceptions are now very much on a different direction for the movement). So, when Selma was announced, I was actually pretty excited about it. . . . then it got a release date. Selma’s limited release in New York City and Los Angeles in the last few weeks of 2014 before its wide release in 2015 makes the film perhaps the most obvious bit of Oscarbait this season. As major studios bombard viewers with heavily-dramatic films designed to showcase the talents of directors and actors who could not possibly open the same films during Summer Blockbuster Season and be remembered until Academy (and Golden Globe) voters had to vote for their favorites of the year, Selma is doing exactly what it is “supposed” to do.
Selma is a tool being used by Paramount Pictures and the Hollywood studio system to retain influence and help performers, directors, and the like woo investors. If those releasing Selma actually wanted to make a statement and honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they would have released it well in advance of the 2012 Midterm elections in order to use its messages of social change as a clarion call to inspire voters. But, Selma and its December/January staggered release is a business move. Clearly Oprah Winfrey, whose HARPO Productions helped finance Selma, learned an important lesson from the release of The Butler, which had an August release back in 2013, garnered a great deal of attention and was virtually forgotten by the time Award Season came. Following the thematic heavy-handedness of 12 Years A Slave (reviewed here!), Selma hits screens with additional burdens. The film can educate the young (though “segregation is bad” seems to have an obvious resonance, much like 12 Years A Slave’s “slavery was brutal”), remind those who lived through it (the job is not yet over) and entertain. The burden on Selma is to “pull an Argo.” Argo (reviewed here!) pulled off something of a cinematic miracle; viewers with even a modicum of education knew exactly how the film would end, but the power of the film was that midway through the movie, viewers forget they know what is coming next because of the tension and captivating performances. In a similar way, Selma is burdened with viewers knowing the significance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama. Viewers going into Selma have to know that the film will
Selma is exactly as heavy-handed as one might expect. From the moment Annie Cooper is told she has to name all 67 county judges in Alabama in order to have her voter registration approved, viewers know they are in for an unrelenting message movie. Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb literally hit us in the face with the theme and message moments later when Martin Luther King Jr. is “introduced” to a man in Selma by getting punched in the face. Unfortunately for viewers, Selma does not pull an Argo; there is little entertaining or even engaging to watching the struggle for equality in the organization and execution of the Selma Civil Rights March, at least as it is presented in Selma.
Opening with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Oslo, where he is being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, tensions in the South begin running high when a church is bombed, killing four girls. Returning to the United States, King has the opportunity to meet with President Johnson. Johnson tries to sell King on his “War On Poverty” while Dr. King pushes for voting equality. Finding that the tensions in Selma make it an ideal place to fight the next, significant, battle of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King makes plans to move his power base there to fight for equal voting rights for Negros. While the FBI works to undermine the King family and Coretta Scott King gets graphic and disturbing harassing phone calls, Dr. King takes up in Selma.
Soon, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) converges on Selma where they have to negotiate with local movements. Slowly, King and the SCLC organize activists to push for voting reform. Inspired by Dr. King’s speeches and using the infrastructure built years earlier, the black community organizes to fight for their essential human rights.
Director Ava DuVernay does a decent job of tying the movement in Selma to the happenings in Washington, D.C. by periodically including F.B.I. surveillance notes on Dr. King up on screen. The technique works to bind the elements of the story to show well how the push and pull between the Civil Rights Movement and the institutions within the U.S. government reacted to one another.
Selma has a predictably wonderful cast, led by David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One has to figure that playing Dr. King is the role of a lifetime for virtually any black actor (because, let’s face it, the casting requirements pretty much demand “black male” above all else – recast that role and your film never gets off the ground!) and Oyelowo certainly has the look for it. Almost immediately in Selma, Oyelowo presents a powerfully human interpretation of Dr. King. Oyelowo’s King is moody, sullen and more-often-than-not exhausted. While this works exceptionally well to create a more well-rounded and realistic character (my review is solely of the film, not actual historical events or the real-life people portrayed in the film!), David Oyelowo’s performance becomes a harder sell than it ought to be. The film shows Dr. King excited most in his stereotypical social moments – the first meeting at Miss Johnson’s house has an unfortunate Black Barbershop Stereotype feel to it – and with Oyelowo’s moodiness, he fails to capture the raw charisma of Dr. King. In other words, there is a strange discontinuity in Oyelowo’s performance; he does not seem old enough at the film’s outset to be portraying the leaders exhausted by years of fighting the fight and F.B.I. surveillance and he does not have the youthful energy to credibly inspire the masses. The result is good casting for physicality and articulation, but falls short on actual performance ability.
The supporting cast of Selma is generally well-cast and fairly well-used. The notable exception to that is Tom Wilkinson. I am a fan of so many of Wilkinson’s works and having him play President Johnson was an unfortunate choice. While Wilkinson might be able to pull of virtually any role, from the moment he first appeared on screen in Selma, I realized that he could be perfectly cast as Nixon. It’s a sad thing to be watching Selma and whenever Wilkinson’s Johnson pops up on screen one has to remind themselves that they are not watching Richard Nixon in action!
At the other end of the spectrum, Wendell Pierce makes great use of his brief time on screen as Williams to present a character who screams with more depth than the moment. Pierce brings a sense of gravitas to the part that implies the history between Williams and King and makes the character of Reverend Williams feel like he has a life outside simply this film. Martin Sheen, Dylan Baker and Carmen Ejogo are all good in Selma.
But, the key role in Selma - outside casting Dr. King – went to Eli Roth. Roth plays Alabama Governor George Wallace and he is an amazing foil to Oyelowo’s King. Roth plays the role with seething anger that contrasts Oyelowo’s calm and he steals the scenes he is in. Roth plays villains well and Wallace is one of his best-presented ones.
But the cast is not enough to make Selma into a film that is likely to do anything other than garner award nominations. The process story elements are not entertaining, the government harassment elements are heavy-handed and obvious and the interplay of the characters is not engaging enough to make the film worthy of attention outside Awards Season.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Last Five Years
The Seventh Son
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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