You know a movie has done well by you when you spend the next few hours after seeing it wanting to beat a man to a bloody pulp.
Honestly you guys, any lead-in blurb that I’m thinking up is kind of pushing the boundaries of good taste, and I already did an anti-cop joke in my Kingsman review, so yeah. This is Selma.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Produced by: Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Written by: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay
Genre: Historical drama
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Touissant, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Oprah Winfrey
Music by: Jason Moran
Plot: In 1964, the fight for Civil Rights in America is intensifying, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) is right in the thick of it all. The latest issue to rear its ugly head is the blatant neglect of the right of to vote that is guaranteed to black citizens in more backwards parts of the nation. When putting pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) doesn’t amount to much (As LBJ has a lot of stuff on his plate, such as the Vietnam War and combating poverty), Dr. King decides to take matters into his own hands, organising a massive, peaceful protest march from Selma, Alabama to the State Capitol in Montgomery, much to the dismay of the segregationist dickhead that is Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).
Out of all of the movies in this year’s Oscar class, Selma Is definitely the most topical of the bunch. You could argue that American Sniper‘s (More or less) anti-war message is also relevant, but it’s also not a great movie, and I’ll talk more about it later. What with the Trayvon Martin debacle and Ferguson being fresh in our minds, it’s hard not to feel the gravity of the situation, especially when the fantastic “Glory” song plays through the credits. We’re not here to talk about the relevance of the movie, though, we’re here to talk about quality. And, as is the case with all news vaguely related to minorities, I’m legally obligated as a reviewer to say that it was great.
In all seriousness, Selma is a great movie. Is it the best movie of 2014? No, and it’s not even really that close. Is it the most important movie of 2014? Quite possibly, although in terms of measuring the depths of stupidity that the human race has fallen to, I would argue that Left Behind is a better indication of where we are as a species.
While Selma generally does everything well, with terrific cinematography, well directed scenes and a solidly written and fleshed-out script, the biggest thing the film has going for it is the supremely talented cast. While the fact that this movie was produced by and stars Oprah Winfrey in a supporting role kind of makes me roll my eyes and give out an exasperated sigh, but seeing her in the movie (Portraying activist Annie Lee Cooper) kind of makes you remember that she’s an Academy Award-nominated actress, god complex and all. Another solid performer popping up is Cuba Gooding, Jr., believe it or not, and he’s quite solid himself, bringing up the question of why in the world he doesn’t get more work.
Carmen Ejogo is a name that I had to look up, but she gives a spirited performance as Coretta Scott King (A role she actually played before in a 2001 TV movie, believe it or not). Tom Wilkinson is great as LBJ, Common is solid as (Nowadays disgraced, for good reason) James Bevel and so is Orange is the New Black‘s Lorraine Touissant as Amelia Boynton Robinson. Heading over to the “dickhed” end of the spectrum, Tim Roth is deliciously evil as Governor George Wallace. I guess you could argue that he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table in terms of character depth, but he’s a segregationist. I think the portrayal of Wallace as a pigheaded shitstain is pretty apt, don’t you think?
(It should be noted that Wallace later recanted his views and apologized to the black community and made a record number of black appointments to state positions. Take that for what it’s worth, I guess)
However, the heart and soul of Selma resides with English actor David Oyelowo (The asshole from Rise of the Planet of the Apes), who is completely spellbinding as one of the greatest men of the 20th century. There was a lot of outrage when he and Jake Gyllenhaal were snubbed for Best Actor nominations, and I was just as righteously pissed as anybody. I found that the best part of his performance was the humanity that he helped instill into the character. It would’ve been easy to portray him as a stoic badass, but Oyelowo knows that this is a human being he’s portraying, and no human being is 100% infallible.
In fact, this whole movie does a pretty spectacular job of humanizing Dr. King. Though history frequently portrays him as this immaculate bastion of a man, he had his flaws. He didn’t always have total faith in his cause, or in his ability to go about things the right way. Hell, he had a weakness for women! The FBI tried to blackmail him! He was an objectively flawed man, but he was still a hero, and his portrayal in Selma reflects that perfectly.
Now, in the way of flaws, there are some historical inaccuracies. Now, I don’t usually nitpick these kinds of things, as they’re usually done for some reasonable artistic reason. However, I feel like I should point out that as much as I dislike President Johnson, he wasn’t actually the one who started surveilling Dr. King. It was Bobby Kennedy who authorized it and J. Edgar Hoover who executed it. Granted, LBJ went along with it, but isn’t that kind of strange creative decision to show Johnson ordering Hoover to start spying on Dr. King? Am I alone in thinking that? Eh. At least they got Hoover’s personality down. Specifically, raging dickhole.
I realize that historical dramas tend to be on the talkier side. History wasn’t all sex scenes and explosions, unfortunately. However, there were several scenes in the movie that did go a bit too long for my taste. It wasn’t the worst, per se, but it did get to the point where I felt that the emotions conveyed could’ve been communicated in much less words. Ah well. Better to be too talky than an underdeveloped mess.
Overall: Honouring Dr. King without being overly reverent, Selma is an important film that commands respect.