Review: “Selma” Perfectly Reminds Us That The Past Isn’t Past
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriter: Paul Webb
Principal Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The last of the major releases are slowing being filtered through the theaters. There are a few more in the early weeks of January for those of us who didn’t get a screener DVD. One of the movies that has been generating a lot of buzz is Selma. I’ve been looking forward to it since the beginning, but I was also well aware that not every movie based off of great people is good. They can often fall flat if they fail to capture the person or fail to humanize them. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of those historical figures that everyone knows what he did, but not necessarily a lot about the man behind the mission. There is also the trap of falling into a film becoming a boring history lecture when this is a movie meant to entertain and also educate. There were a lot of lines that Selma was walking and I was anxious to see if it would stumble.
Selma is a sober, slow moving piece about the life of the late Dr. King helmed by a career best performance by David Oyelowo.
Selma follows the later life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965. Segregation has been outlawed but many states are either refusing to comply or finding some way to work their way around the law. There isn’t anything anyone can do about it because law enforcement and politicians are all predominantly white. Dr. King sees the town of Selma, Alabama, where African Americans are being denied their right to vote, as the perfect place to make a stand against this inequality. When King decides that a march from Selma to Montgomery is the way to go, he must face a leery President, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Tim Roth), and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), who is hellbent to stop King and his supporters no matter what the cost.
If there is one thing that I hope someone takes away from Selma it’s that it’s a two hour reminder of what we haven’t accomplished. This isn’t a movie that pats anyone on the back and tells them that they did a good job. Selma is much more interesting in what hasn’t been accomplished compared to what has. There are quite a few times when Johnson tries to make deals with King, citing that “he ended segregation, shouldn’t that be enough for now?” Every time King tells him “no, it’s not enough”, as he should. That is one of the things I really admired about this movie; it tells the story of great triumphs but it never shies away from the fact that sometimes a tiny step forward isn’t worth celebrating. There were several moments (a speech by Wallace stands out the most for me) that took place nearly fifty years ago, and it felt like something I could still hear today. That is what director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb want people to walk away with; we aren’t done yet.
I can’t get into how important I think this movie is without mentioning David Oyelowo’s performance. He truly captures King in a way that I have rarely seen. I’d be curious to talk to anyone who saw King in person when he was alive and to hear a comparison, since I’ve only seen news footage. Oyelowo captures the concept of nonviolence being a strength instead of a weakness perfectly, and it’s a performance for the ages. Every moment that he is on screen your eyes are drawn to him the same way it is with great leaders. At the same time both Oyelowo and everyone else in the production are aware that King was not only a leader, but a human being with flaws as well. We see him doubt himself and the movement, and we see him struggle with the conflicts of being a leader and a father. They are all great moments that keep what could have been a preachy movie sincere.
That is another thing I really liked about Selma; it isn’t preachy. When movies are about important issues, they can sometimes come across as too preachy, but this thankfully side steps that. While Wallace and Clark are nearly cartoonishly evil in their plight against the African Americans, or when J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) suggests a government assassination of King, the harsh reality is this is how people thought not so long ago, and how some still continue to think today. That is what makes the gut punches of the beatings and murders even worse. Less than ten minutes into the movie we see the bombing of a church that took the lives of four little black girls. DuVernay makes sure that we see and understand that lives are being lost. The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Standfield) is probably the worst because an unarmed black man getting shot in public is not something that happens rarely.
I feel like some credit must be given to the sound design because there is a lack of music that seems to take place during some very crucial moments, and it just adds to the gut punch that is the majority of this film. The supporting cast is also absolutely fantastic and adds to the movie as a whole. Carmen Ejogo has been in mediocre to terrible movies up until now, but she adds real life to Coretta Scott King and the torment she went through by having a husband challenging the social order. Her story rang true to what a lot of women are experiencing in nerd culture (anonymous threats, fearing for your own safety), and I felt like I could relate to that. Fans of Orange is the New Black are going to be glad to see Lorraine Toussaint absolutely kill it in a supporting role of an older woman who just wants to vote. The rest of the supporting cast, including Coleman Domingo, Corey Reynolds, and Cuba Gooding Jr,. all bring their A game.
I do have a few nick picks, the main one being historical accuracy and how it appears several things were greatly exaggerated. Now I understand that making President Johnson seem like a coward and turning Governor Wallace and Sheriff Clark into bond villains makes sense on a narrative level, but they might have overdone it a bit. The movie is also long, over two hours, which I heard a few people complain about. I noticed it was long but I also realized that there was a lot to cover so I excused the length. The pacing was a little slow but this is a historical drama, and much like a western they tend to be a little on the slow side.
Selma is a very important movie for everyone to see considering current events. It shows that we have a long way to go before we have true equality between all people, and despite its somber tone Selma manages to be a little uplifting as well. It is absolutely worth a look.