Directed by: Ava DuVernay || Produced by: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey
Screenplay by: Paul Webb || Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Keith Stanfield, Alessandro Nivola, Andre Holland, Wendell Pierce
Music by: Jason Moran || Cinematography: Bradford Young || Edited by: Spencer Averick || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 127 minutes
Making the rounds as 2014’s Oscar-contender for the annual overrated “racial/sexual/ ethnic/religious/(insert oppressed demographic here)-drama” is Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which dramatizes the events of the American civil rights movement up to and immediately following the 1965 Selma, Alabama voting rights marches primarily led and organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK). While the film’s poster and marketing make ample use of MLK’s iconic stature in American culture, the actual focus of the film is broader and encompasses the overarching philosophy of the African-American civil rights movement as a whole, including its numerous key supporters beyond MLK. The film’s thematic scope covers the numerous critics and rivals of the movement within and without the black community at the time, including numerous student-led groups, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and even a brief “cameo”-appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) himself.
This “bigger picture”-approach of Selma is something for which I applaud DuVernay simply on ambition and novel avoidance of cliche alone. This film very well could’ve been another 42 (2013)-clone released from the Hollywood factory of overly shallow, over-commercialized racial-triumph dramas that attempt to mask their formulaic storytelling with sociopolitical “edginess.” This film is certainly a step or two above a 42 or similarly hamfisted social commentaries like Crash (2004), Glory (1989), or any of Spike Lee’s more recent pictures, nor is it yet another tiresome biopic that goes on forever.
That being said, Selma’s more sensible narrative structure and broader character study still come with a surplus of the preachy, heavy-handed social commentary that plagues most of Hollywood and independent American cinema’s more sociologically-minded pictures. Numerous times throughout the movie, the story comes to a complete halt to directly address a minor supporting character (a not-so-subtle placeholder for the audience) and spell everything out for those of us beyond the fourth-wall. Whether it’s MLK (David Oyelowo) pleading a reluctant, wishy-washy Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ, Tom Wilkinson) to get off his lazy partisan-politician ass and provide enforcement for his own citizens’ voting rights, or another Selma-march coordinator calmly advising a younger member of the consequences of violent retaliation amidst the chaos of brutal white-on-black crime, it’s crystal clear every time DuVernay wants to a make statement about just how far we remain from MLK’s ideals in 2014. And she keeps making that statement. Repeatedly. Obviously. We get it.
Supporters of the social applicability of this movie in light of recent events may find some convoluted way to justify this, but much of this forced, contrived social commentary in these demographic-oppression films becomes tiresome for me. Over and over again I repeat on this blog that the purpose, the inherent strength of cinema, is showing things rather than telling them; when much of a film’s thematic “point” is built around these stilted, awkward exchanges of dialogue, which grinds the story to a halt and essentially starts lecturing the audience, I lose interest and take the movie less seriously as a result. You don’t need to spell everything out for the audience!
To that end, despite the film’s admirable ambition and wide thematic lens, some of the stereotypical narrative elements of lame civil rights dramas creep into MLK’s arc when the story focuses explicitly on him. What I mean by this is that much of MLK’s progression becomes painfully formulaic: Character confronts racism, character fights racism and rallies support around him, character withstands even more racism (including violence and threats) and has temporary doubts, character receives inspirational pep-talk from supporting characters, character regains confidence and then eventually triumphs over said racism. Cue the feels. Sigh….
And don’t even get me started on the pointless, superfluous scenes between Corretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) and MLK pertaining to the latter’s infidelity. There’s trying to be edgy and deep, and then there’s a filmmaker wasting my time.
That being said, Selma boasts many strengths, including but not limited to its critical depictions of racism, resistance, and perseverance that we can see and feel rather than listen to. The film’s Bloody Sunday set-piece captures police brutality in disturbing and violently intimate detail. MLK’s final speech at the Montgomery courthouse as the film lists the future details of its key figures against rousing music is a great, emotionally resonant sequence. The power in each of these scenes comes not from actors’ words but how DuVernay frames the actors saying them, as well as how particular sequences are cross-cut to highlight thematic visuals.
All in all, Selma is a broadly focused ensemble piece that is at its best when it’s sampling various interrelated elements of the civil rights era, but not spoon-feeding its thematic message to its viewers. My major complaints with the film have to do with its non-infrequent use of preachy dialogue and its habit of talking down to its audience. The performances themselves are fine across the board, but nothing here seems particularly award-worthy to me. Altogether, there’s little about Selma that’s bad beyond its occasional hamfisted social commentary, but then again there’s not much that’s extraordinary about it either, if anything. Selma is no half-assed Jackie Robinson-biopic, but it sure as shit ain’t no Fire (1996), Earth (1998), 12 Years a Slave (2013), or Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006).
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Ava DuVernay is a better director than Paul Webb is a screenwriter, as she executes the film’s two or three most important scenes with great precision and attention to visceral detail. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is brief but particularly stunning. She also uses parallel editing at several key build-up moments to keep the film’s pacing afloat despite numerous slowdowns.
— However… Selma becomes too self-righteous and blunt for its own good, though given the subject matter and recent events, that is understandable. Their chemistry is nice, but I don’t care about MLK’s marital infidelity against Coretta, and his character arc is disappointingly formulaic.
—> ON THE FENCE