Thursday, September 14, 2017

Free at Last

Film: Selma
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I tend to save my Oscar rants for Mondays and Fridays, but in the case of Selma, it’s hard not to start off there. Selma, perhaps the most ambitious movie about the Civil Rights movement since Malcolm X, was nominated for exactly two Oscars: Best Picture and Best Original Song (which it won). For all of its efforts to be visibly color blind and progressive in many things, the Academy is still very traditional at heart in many ways. Ava DuVernay, a black woman director, was overlooked, as was the powerhouse of a performance by David Oyelowo. There’s still a long way to go, evidently.

Selma is not the biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo), nor is it the story of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. It is instead the story of the march in Selma, in many ways the spiritual beginning of the movement. The film attempts to take a comprehensive look at everything that happened immediately before and during those days in Selma, both in Selma itself and in the rest of the country, particularly in Lyndon Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) White House.

The truth is that Selma is either disturbingly easy or incredibly difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs. The quick and dirty version is that in a place of racial violence to sort of which I honestly can’t personally comprehend, a group of people headed by Martin Luther King Jr. fought for their rights against unbelievable oppression and odds to get their constitutional right to register to vote. However, the truth is far more complicated than that, as any great social issue is almost by definition.

In truth, the story of Selma is compelling enough that it doesn’t really need a lot more than the story it is telling. The political situation alone makes the story worth watching, as does the human drama. Fortunately, Selma has much more going for it than just a story that is worth watching. Beyond the story, a movie like this lives and dies with its cast, and the movie has a very deep cast. This starts with David Oyelowo, who embodies King in a way that is surprising. There are moments when he manages to inject something much like the timbre and force of King’s speaking voice into his own which only adds to the performance he gives. As I said at the top, I cannot imagine how he was passed over come Oscar season.

Oyelowo is backed up by the sort of cast that is assembled only for the sorts of directors in the very top tier of the profession or for films of such importance. Top to bottom, this is a cast to dream of. This starts with Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Tom Wilkinson, while he doesn’t particularly look or sound like LBJ, manages to encompass him almost perfectly. The same can be said of Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace. Even roles that turn out to be small—Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Stephen Root as Col. Al Lingo, are handled about as well as they could be. It was also nice to see Henry G. Sanders in a small but important role, and Martin Sheen shows up in an uncredited role as a judge. Even Cuba Gooding Jr. seems to redeem the past few years of his career with a small but important role.

In fact, there is only one problem I really see with Selman and it’s in the writing of this review. Selma is the sort of movie that can be easily reviewed in a couple of hundred words. It’s a brilliantly-made movie by an up-and-coming director who I think will be increasingly important in years to come. It is beautifully acted from top to bottom. It’s an important story, the sort of story that sadly still needs to be told. It’s also a film that could easily be worth a few thousand words. It’s just not the sort of film that applies itself easily to the length I tend to write.

And so, honestly, I don’t have a lot more to say about it. It’s a great film, and a film that people should see, perhaps now more than ever.

Why to watch Selma: With the possible exception of the space race, it is the most important story from the 1960s.
Why not to watch: Hard not to be pissed off about a hell of a lot of it.


  1. It is disturbing how many films about race, from the past and made recently, that still feel highly relevant today (and I say this as a non-American).

    I can't comprehend why it wasn't nominated for more awards, particularly for acting and directing: as you say, it is hard not to put it down to the Academy's conservatism.

    1. Right. The Academy likes to tell itself that it's really progressive, and there are times when it is, pointing to things like Hattie McDaniels's win for Gone with the Wind. The problem is that most of the Academy's big stands on things like race have been safe. Selma is indicative of that.

      My favorite example of this is still the 1989 Oscars. The safe racism movie, Driving Miss Daisy, wins Best Picture. The dangerous racism movie, Do the Right Thing, which is still just as relevant now, gets ignored.

      It's also not just race. Ava DuVernay being snubbed is quite possibly just as much (or more) about her gender as it is her race. In fact, as much as I hate to say it, I think it's more likely that her gender kept her off the docket as a director.