Movie Review: Selma
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day being celebrated this week, I’ll be reviewing the film Selma. A timeless story about the struggle for equality, Selma also happens to be a timely tale. Garnering a lot of good press in addition to its nomination for Best Picture, it seems like a perfect time to take a look at Selma, which just went into wide release this past weekend. Does the film rise to the challenge of such a momentous historical happening? It does, and much of its impact is thanks to director Ava DuVernay allowing the events to present themselves in a natural and organic matter. It turns out when you have a story this big, its best to let the events and characters speak for themselves.
Selma tells the story of the civil rights movement in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with a close focus on the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King had scored two major victories, first with the Civil Rights Act, and second with being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. At the apex of his prestige, King determined that his next major campaign would be for equal voting rights, as various shady tactics had been devised, such as poll taxes and voucher systems, to keep black citizens from voting. He found his beachhead in Selma, Alabama. Through a series of marches, protests, and rallies, King hoped to pressure President Wilson to recognize the urgency of the issue, and act at the federal level.
The Wheels of Justice Turn Exceedingly Slow…
Selma is a slow film, but not a ponderous film. This film shows the nitty-gritty of the civil rights fight, focusing on Dr. King’s home life and work within the larger movement, President Wilson’s wrangling and squabbles with his staff and advisers, the territorial nature of locally organized activists, and the upheaval in the lives of simple citizens caught up in a much larger machine. Quite often the workings of that machine are slow and deliberate. Large periods of the film are dominated by quiet internal struggles or personality clashes within organizations (both those working for equality, and those working against it.) These scenes are handled deftly, giving a layer of complexity to the proceedings, and the lulls create greater drama for when action or violence does erupt, as it often does, abruptly and shockingly.
The acting is strong, though a definite ensemble effort. Besides Dr. King (played well by David Oyelowo,) Coretta King (played by Carmen Ejogo) and President Wilson (Tom Wilkinson,) most of the players are quite easy to lose track of. This is not because they are not well played roles, but because the film focuses so deftly on such a large group of individuals who become entangled in the struggle. People come and go, each adding important impetus to the events, so that when the avalanche finally arrives, it become impossible to realize which pebble was of utmost importance. Truly a finely acted film, from top to bottom.
…But Grind Exceedingly Fine.
So often, a film pregnant with “importance” feels bloated and full of pretense, crushing the audience with a glacial pace, practically screaming out to have important characters, scenes, and dialogue given extreme consideration. You’d almost expect Selma to go the same route: this is an extremely pivotal moment of a very socially important movement, it is populated with cultural icons whose fame reverberates up to this day, and and Dr. King gave some of the finest speeches of any American orator in history. But Ava DuVernay eschews bombast and theatrics in favor of a very narrow focus on the events.
Cinematically, Selma is very good in many places, but not uniformly great. The visuals are engaging, with excellent establishing shots of locations. The use of snippets of FBI files overlay-ed over the proceedings gives the narrative structure, but sometimes distracts from the dialogue or imagery behind them. My one major complaint for Selma is that the sound work is uneven. Much of the dialogue is delivered in hushed tones or over the telephone, and it is very easy to miss important lines due to the “authentic” quality of those recordings. The text overlays, especially at the end, also obscure the speeches, as your attention is split frequently between reading, listening and viewing. The selection of music is quite impressive, ranging from contemporary soul, traditional spirituals, and raw protest music from the 1960’s, and even if they are infrequent, they are very well used. I will definitely see the film again at home, where I can fiddle with the volume or pause action to catch more of the dialogue.
A Timely Message
No discussion of this film can leave out the cultural context in which the film is being released. Fifty years later, we still live in a country lacerated with racial inequality, and this year, 2014, saw some of the most flagrant offenses against civil liberties in recent memory. Like 1964, a militarized society seems turned against its populace, especially its people of color, and some at the highest levels of state and federal government hope to retain power by attacking the ability of minorities to vote. To Selma‘s credit, the film draws many of these modern parallels implicitly, once again letting the force of the events shape a narrative that calls into focus these ongoing issues. That is a discussion, as a nation, we very much need to have, still, half a century after the monumental struggle in Selma, Alabama.