I won’t go into the recent Oscar controversy surrounding the film, but I do concur with those who feel the film’s lead actors and director not being nominated is a gross oversight. Like so many modern films depicting historic situations, Selma suffers from some genre clichés: collapsing too many complex issues into a glib exchange or two, projecting the passage of time chiefly through changes in wardrobe and hairstyle, giving us historical figures who sometime seem as if they walked out of a book of paper dolls.
However, and this is key, Selma is written and directed with a sharp eye toward how far we think we’ve come yet how little we’ve actually achieved when it comes to human rights in America. We are a country that celebrates freedom and equality but thrives economically on an ingrained caste system, which is based on race and ethnicity and gender and age, all superficial qualities ultimately irrelevant to one’s true value. The film wisely focuses on an episode in Martin Luther King‘s storied career (the march on Selma) as a means of understanding the man and his role in history, rather than doing the tired lifetime-crammed-into-three-hours biopic approach of yore.
Director Ava DuVernay stacks the deck with a cast that is both credible and compelling. David Oyelowo so inhabits the soul and voice and mannerisms of Martin Luther King, you forget at times that you’re watching an actor (let alone a Brit) portray one of our greatest historical figures. Carmen Ejogo (another Brit!) offers a Coretta Scott King who is flinty and self-possessed, gracious and justifiably exhausted in the face of harrowing trials both domestic and public.
Tom Wilkinson (Brit number three!) as a blustering, well-intentioned, frustrated and frustrating LBJ and Tim Roth (Brit number four!) as misguided/misanthropic political animal George Wallace round out a terrific cast. All are dynamite. With great nuance, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers (and not a Brit), plays a pivotal (if small) role in Annie Lee Cooper , whose efforts to gain the right to vote are the essential issue at play in King’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
Unlike Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which presented another take on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Selma does not fall prey to its own high-minded aspirations. The filmmakers are not afraid to show King warts and all (his philandering is addressed in a quietly powerful confrontation between Coretta and her husband) or even to imply that King is as much a political opportunist as those white leaders both alongside and in opposition to his efforts. DuVernay lets her lens show King in a number of lights: noble, maddeningly self-serving, obtuse, kind. I found that approach refreshing, educational, and enlightening, particularly as I continue to scratch my head at the decision-making of our world’s current leaders.
In the film, King, in his climactic speech in Montgomery, uses the phrase “a vicious lie as placation,” impugning the very nature of a system that pushes one class down to the benefit of another. This insidious concept continues to corrupt our ability to peacefully coexist, both among ourselves as Americans and with all other denizens of the world; viewing Selma could be part of the antidote: instructive, heart rending, and essential
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)
In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.