SELMA – The Review
Compared to everything Martin Luther King Jr. achieved during his lifetime, SELMA showcases but a fraction of his accomplishments. Of course that fraction is one of the biggest triumphs of his lifetime. It was a turning point for so many in America and a cornerstone in the Civil Rights Movement. SELMA doesn’t try to be an all-encompassing look at Martin Luther King (played with gusto by David Oyelowo); it simply chronicles the events leading up to a march Dr. King led from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama that occurred in 1965 as a protest to institute a unencumbered equal rights voting bill. It quickly becomes evident though that this isn’t just King’s show. There are a number of people that led to the formation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and learning about the secondary characters in SELMA is just as important to the film as King’s many, many speeches that director Ava DuVernay sometimes gets lost in highlighting.
Cinematographer Bradford Young perfectly captures the presence of Martin Luther King as he delivers his inspiring speeches while also showing the brutal confrontations that the protestors from Selma and from other parts of America had to endure. Attacks on a bridge leading out of Selma are filmed in a frenzied and energetic manner but are still clearly understood even amid all the smoke and tear gas. There are many instances where shots are framed in a symmetrical way – King at the lectern anchored by sconces or protestors arm in arm walking towards the camera in solidarity. Other times a simple shot of a pair of shoes walking on the asphalt will pull back to reveal a sea of people. It is moments like this that emphasize King’s idea that all it takes is one person to stand-up and make a difference.
There has been much debate recently among the news media surrounding how supportive Lyndon B. Johnson was of the Civil Rights Movement. Some critics have pointed out that SELMA unfairly and maliciously paints him in a negative light in order to push the film’s story. Others have been quick to point out that his voting record prior to gaining the Presidential seat shows that he was actually not in favor of it, and it was only until late that his views shifted. Given the fact that the film picks up after LBJ meets King for the first time after winning the Nobel Peace Prize I can only judge what the film shows from that point on. Also, considering I’m a film critic and not a major historian, I can only impart that what I witnessed was a very complex and troubled character. I didn’t necessarily see a bad guy nor did I see someone who fully stood behind King. I saw a politician – a man who was out for his own personal gain but who struggled with his personal feelings along with the demands of the public and outside political parties. He’s shown as someone attempting to maintain a balance, and it’s only when the media shows the shift in public opinion that he is able to drop his political agenda in favor of giving in to his own personal desires to match that of the general public. Tom Wilkinson as LBJ doesn’t come across as cartoonishly evil as Tim Roth playing an Alabama Governor, or as bad as the recent news media has accused the film of mislabeling him. SELMA may not get the facts 100% accurate according to some, but I would argue that it does paint LBJ in shades of grey instead of just black and white.
There is no denying that the true hero of SELMA is David Oyelowo. He embodies the charismatic leader and orator while still adding a level of humanity when he isn’t delivering rousing speeches. DuVernay is careful not to shine too bright of a light on King. He certainly is no saint and SELMA shows him as he deals with marriage woes and internal fighting among his cohorts. When the film does drift into these treacherous waters is when it gets a little shaky. The drama between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) feels tacked-on and doesn’t add much to the real drama at the center of the story. I found myself wanting to get back to the tension between the Selma marchers and their opposing forces. Even though their constant round-about fights created an often cyclical effect, I still found the slowly mounting tension from the history making events to be more inspiring than a dining room quarrel.
I’m afraid to necessarily say SELMA is an important film because I feel that undermines the point DuVernay was trying to make. Martin Luther King is such an important figure in our nation’s history and what he helped achieve for so many is groundbreaking. But a film like SELMA shows that it wasn’t just one man struggling on behalf of an entire race of people. He had hundreds, thousands, millions of supporters from all over, and while this film occasionally relegates the outspoken leader’s life to the background in lieu of the bigger cultural picture, that’s precisely the point. SELMA is about a moment in history when many came together for a common goal and a shared love of equal rights for all. King may be the man standing in front, but DuVernay is hear to show us that that person is no different from you or I. That’s what makes SELMA an important film.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5
SELMA is now playing in theaters everywhere.