Saturday, January 10, 2015


I occasionally tease folks for how they seem to gush an extra little bit about the filmmakers they've met or otherwise interacted with, so I'll admit - Selma's director Ava DuVernay did once send me an email thanking me for reviewing I Will Follow about four years ago. Probably one of dozens, because it was a pretty great movie, and one also had to admire DuVernay for the hard push she and her African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement made to get a small film with an African-American cast into theaters.

So, yes, I felt more happy than I likely have any right to when I saw that she was the one directing a big movie that I already thought looked pretty good from the trailers. It's the pushed-for-Oscars big time, even more so because images of black people protesting how they feel disenfranchised are a lot more fresh than they should be. It's great to see, then, that she's up to it.

The funny thing is, I thought the review should have come out easier - it's one of those movies where everything is done well, so you ought to just be able to make a list. Instead, it ate much of the day, and I still didn't get to say how much I liked the music among other things. But, anyway - as good as you've heard Selma is, it is, in fact, that good.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2015 in Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, DCP)

Selma stood a good chance of a big deal from the moment it was greenlit; it's the first feature film to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King, features excellent work by David Oyelowo in that role, and is generally built for prestige. Then 2014 happened, and suddenly a movie that was likely made with the idea of being a look at how things changed seemed to have a lot more to say about how things are (at least, to those of us who aren't living that reality every day). Fortunately, that's an extra burden that this film is well able to carry.

It covers a tight period, with Dr. King's receipt of a Nobel Peace Prize serving as a sort of prologue to his meeting President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who urges King to focus less on voting rights than his planned War on Poverty, but King will not be deterred. So, he and several other pastors and civil rights activists converge on Selma, Alabama, where the groundwork for a major protest has been laid - one which will culminate in a march to the state capital in Montgomery.

Though marches and protests like the ones in Selma often feel like they just happened - they enter the historical narrative that way, as moments where widespread people with similar sentiments found themselves all moving in the same direction like a tide that surges up the shore - that's generally not the case, and the way Paul Webb's script recognizes this is part of what makes Selma fascinating. King, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), LBJ, Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), and the younger activists who are native to Selma are all thinking in terms of tactics and strategy, explained quickly and clearly but without getting too bogged down in details.

The combination of passion for a humanist endeavor and sometimes cool-seeming intellect is what makes King a fascinating figure, and David Oyelowo hits it on the nose. In the almost half-century since his assassination, King has become an almost sanctified figure despite some ugly backlash about his extramarital affairs, and while Oyelowo captures the sheer charisma and forcefulness that came through in Dr. King's oratory, he also makes the moments when he's working to craft those speeches great to watch. They're not moments of doubt (though those are present), but concentration. We get to see just how aware King is that while he preaches non-violence, provoking it is part of his plan, and it doesn't sit perfectly well with him.

Though King is the one recognized enough that his birthday was declared a national holiday, he didn't work alone, and neither does Oyelowo. The other members of his team don't get the individual spotlight he does, but Wendell Pierce (as Hosea Williams), Common (as James Bevel), Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, and many others stand out, making their characters amplify King in part by surrounding him with different personalities that don't waver. Carmen Ejogo's Coretta is sometimes the standard concerned wife, but she wears it very well. Nigel Thatch has a great appearance as a Malcolm X who is somewhat humbled, not the firebrand he once was. Tom Wilkinson occasionally seems miscast as President Johnson - a politician and President as canny as LBJ shouldn't seem so outclassed as he does in Wilkinson's scenes with Oyelowo - altough he does get a great moment when finally paired up with Tim Roth (a perfectly loathsome Governor George Wallace). Oprah Winfrey is memorable as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman humiliated while attempting to register to vote.

Cooper's being denied is one of the two sequences that set the stakes, and director Ava DuVernay uses them to quickly describe what was at stake in 1965, putting the audience in the situation without allowing it to overpower the specific story she's telling. She, Webb, and the rest of the crew do a great job of setting the environment - they punctuate scenes with lines from FBI surveillance of King and the rest of the civil rights movement, and there's a quiet emphasis on how, even though they were trying to affect the entire country, much of this was planned in modest spaces and over kitchen tables. Webb's script is very talky, but DuVernay and her cast make the somewhat theatrical dialogue lend import to the events, even as the bigger outdoor scenes show that the filmmakers can do more than just talk.

Selma is the story of a great victory, even if recent events and the song that plays over the end credits reminds us that the work that went on there still needs to be done. And yet, you can almost put the historic importance of the subject matter and the continued relevance aside, because it's also just a plain great movie, one that does every part of telling its story well.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

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