Selma was too restrained, but still powerful
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Selma, while a powerful and profound film was restrained and failed drives its narrative home. Too often during this film, I felt the encroaching depth of the story, and the personal meaning for the filmmakers, but did not feel the plunge into the heart of the story. It was agonizing. I desperately wanted to connect, to be pulled from 2015 into 1965, rather than invited to view events through the narrowly focused lens. This was frustrating because so much of this film was exceptional. Particularly the performances of David Oyelowo and Tim Roth, even Oprah Winfrey put out an intriguing performance.
Selma is about the civil rights demonstrations of 1965, particularly the demonstrations focused on voting rights based in Selma, Alabama lead by Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). This should be a familiar story to anyone that remembers high school American history. The narrative itself focuses on the more political aspects, particularly on the relationship between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Overall, this film did little to explore new grounds, or to expand the view of historical events.
The limited reach of the film caught me as a particularly egregious error in judgment. The parallels between the current state of affairs and the events of 50 years ago are apparent to a large portion of that audience. That portion of the audience will gain little from this film outside an intriguing portrayal of history. My suspicion is that director Ava DuVernay wanted to avoid being overly preachy, or to appear to bludgeon the audience with the point of the story. I believe this is the time that a moral bludgeoning is what the audience needs to really drive the point home, along with a concrete tie to current events. It seems like a cliché for films depicting historical events to begin in the current time and flashback, but it is a tried and true method to illustrate a link between two points in time. Excuse my soapbox, but at a time when voter turnout is so low, we could use a heavy-handed reminder of how hard black Americans fought for this basic right so many of us dismiss as an inconvenient chore. We could use a voting booth lecture from an 80-year-old black voter to counter the “voting doesn’t matter” attitude of many young voters. Honestly, how powerful would the words “Let me tell you about Selma” be in that context? It was a missed opportunity that hurt this film.
Where this film succeeded, brilliantly, particularly in the internal conflict King felt in knowingly leading people into harm’s way. Oyelowo was able to show, very clearly, the toll this took on King, and how deeply he knew that they could not afford to stop. Another element I enjoyed greatly was the cinematography. The way the focus was strategically pulled to keep focus was highly effective. The camerawork kept the feeling of moment even when the action had all but stopped. I commend cinematographer Bradford Young for his beautiful work.
Overall Selma is flawed but nonetheless powerful and moving. It is an extraordinary important story that I would hope could foster a significant dialogue in society.