There’s a tendency for people to oversimplify historical narratives down to the easiest to swallow components possible. Nowhere is this more clear than in our analysis of historical figures. If you were evil, we turn you into the devil. If you were good, we deify you. This has the effect, intended or not, of boiling down complex people into stereotypes.
Me, I prefer more nuanced portrayals of historical events. Very few real people are all good or all evil, and even people worthy of deification have their flaws (Gandhi, for instance, abused his wife. And he keeps threatening to nuke me). But rare is a biopic that seeks not to tear down a historical, but seeks to show how their flaws makes them more vital and important than ever.
Selma has been sold as a biopic on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and while that aspect is certainly there, that’s not really what it is. The story takes place in 1965, soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, as King gears up for what he considers to be the next great part of the struggle; Voting Rights.
With segregation technically illegal, but many local registrars using obstructionist or outright illegal techniques to keep African Americans from voting, King goes to Selma, Alabama to begin his protests, hoping to draw media attention. The film is almost entirely devoted to his protests there in Selma, building towards his famous 50 mile march to Montgomery.
And here is where it gets interesting: The film posits that King chose Selma because he calculated that the local sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) would be just brutal enough to draw the media there and keep it there, and force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into action.
Starting from the position that King was aware of how awful his political opponents would act and was in fact, counting on it for media attention, is a bold place to begin, and Selma doesn’t back down. The film is entirely devoted to the logistics of running a grassroots bottom up campaign. A good portion of the movie is devoted to scenes of the characters debating how best to keep the movement going…
Okay, I just realized that that sounds (IE really boring), but trust me when I say it’s not. By beginning the film with a handful of quick (and pretty dark) scenes that show us exactly what’s at stake and keeping the pacing quick, the film never stops being engaging. The film never lets go of how urgent their struggle is and how high the stakes are.
It also has a couple of really interesting moments addressing perception of their movement, such as when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) shows up, offering to scare the inhabitants of Selma with the veiled threat of more militant protestors. The script’s writer doesn’t appear to have any other credits, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he, or director Ava DeVernay (who is A, best known for working on Scandal and is B, incredible) worked in and around similar protests in their lives.
The film in reminds me the most of honestly, is Lincoln…which also has David Oyelowo in it. Hm. Anyway, both of them take a historical figure, best known for an extremely simplified version of their accomplishments, and shows them as a political manipulator who was willing to do anything to accomplish their extremely noble goals.
While they can’t possibly have intended this (as the movie’s production started beforehand) King’s grassroots campaign and use of the media means that he has more than a little in common with the modern protesting going on in Ferguson. I can’t say more, without making this article more political than is intended, but I’ll tell you to see for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.
Naturally the acting is required to carry a good portion of the movie, and it’s easily some of the best I’ve seen all year. David Oyelowo is a good actor who’s been some good movies, but he’s a revelation here. Playing a person this well known is always difficult, but Oyelowo makes it his own, finding small ways to humanize his character, especially during the second act when things are…well not going well at home.
The other major standout in the acting department is Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. She’s not in the film as much of Oyelowo, but she’s got a couple of the harder scenes to herself, such as a sequence addressing King’s some attempts by the FBI to drive them apart. I can’t say more than that without ruining the scene’s impact, so trust me again.
The secondary actors all acquit themselves nicely, especially Common and Tom Wilkinson. I wish I could have seen more of Tim Roth’s Wallace, as his attitude (that he’s already lost this fight, but just wants to obstruct to look better to his voters) is an interesting take on the historical figure. He makes a very interesting foil to King (especially since he nearly ended the same way) and that’s an aspect I wish the film had explored more.
If the film has a flaw, it’s in the 3rd act. Because of the historical event (IE, the final march actually happening after the police had been forbidden to interfere and after the Voting Rights Act was already proposed) the actual march winds up being something of an afterthought, which means the 3rd act sort of fizzles out. It ends strong enough, with one of King’s most incendiary speeches, but the actual third act is letdown after the intense second act.
A couple weeks ago I lamented that I hadn’t gotten to see this movie before naming my top 10, as I was pretty sure it could make a strong case to be on that list. And now that I’ve seen it, I admit I’m wrong; Selma could make a serious case to be the BEST film of the year. Do not miss Selma; aside from possibly Birdman it is the best film of 2014.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is in this movie too, but the movie seems kinda embarrassed about it.
– the best performances of the year
– fantastic screenplay and direction
– unique take on a historical event and figure that makes him more vital and important than ever
– third act is a tiny bit anticlimactic
– no really
– that’s it