Monday, January 19, 2015

Movie – Selma (2014)

It seemed appropriate to review Selma – the film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s protests for voter registration reform – on this day named in his honor.  I only wish I could write a glowing recommendation for this movie.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good movie about an important topic.  It’s just that Dr. King deserved better, especially since I’ve now read that this is the first theatrically released film about him.  I have to admit that that surprised me, but when I wracked my brain I could not come up with another movie where he was more than a supporting character in someone else’s story.  If Malcolm X can get a great movie made about him thanks to Spike Lee, then Dr. King should have the same.

The film opens with Dr. King (David Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  His wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is with him and they talk about how different this was from when they were first starting out as a newly married couple.  At the time the movie begins The Civil Rights Act has been passed and segregation has been ended in the country – on paper at least.  Dr. King now turns his attention to the fact that most blacks are blocked from registering to vote in southern states, usually by having to answer questions no one would be able to answer.  Oprah Winfrey has a small role as a woman who does try to register.

As Dr. King points out to President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), if blacks cannot register to vote they will not be able to elect people to represent them, but more importantly, they will never get on a jury because jurors are selected from among the registered voters.  No black people on juries means no one committing violence against black people will ever be brought to justice for their crimes.

Here is where the film takes a left turn into fiction: it shows President Johnson as mildly sympathetic, but opposed to Dr. King’s cause.  In fact, during the course of the film President Johnson is the number one antagonist for Dr. King.  There has been criticism of the film for this since in real life President Johnson was a very strong supporter of civil rights and Dr. King.

Any movie about a real person will make up things in order to increase the drama.  I know this intellectually.  Emotionally, though, it did bother me a little bit to see the relationship between these two men characterized the way that it was.

At the end of the film they had an extraordinary disclaimer, at least in my experience.  (Yes, I’m one of those weird people who actually watch the credits.)  Movies about real people will usually say something to the effect that some events or people were made up for the story and they are not intended to be real.  This film stated the following:

“It should be made clear emphatically that this motion picture is not a documentary and is not an effort to precisely reproduce the historical events depicted in this motion picture.  This motion picture is inspired by actual events, persons, and organizations but for dramatic purposes time-lines have been compressed, the dates and/or locations of certain events have been shifted and people are depicted as being present at or participating in events and/or conversations that did not occur or at which they were not actually present.  Any dissimilarities between this motion picture and actual events are fictional.”

With no help from President Johnson Dr. King chooses Selma, Alabama as the place to hold his protests since the local Sheriff can be depended on to overreact so badly that it will gain the protestors sympathy.  As one character says about the sheriff, “If Jesus Christ himself and Elvis Presley both came to him together and told him to go easy on the negroes he would beat the shit out of the two of them and throw them in jail.”

The various plans and maneuvers among both the protestors and the Governor of Alabama (Tim Roth) are where the film is at its strongest.  There is tension.  It shows that people on both sides were sometimes intelligent and sometimes foolhardy.  It does a good job of showing why people were doing what they were doing.  And it builds towards the inevitable protest.

On the negative side, whenever the film left the events going on here it came to a grinding halt.  It’s obvious that director Ava DuVernay felt it important to show that Coretta Scott King suffered by not knowing if her husband was going to be safe, by having him be away so often, and by standing by him when he had affairs.  The film keeps going back to see how she is handling things.  One time is important to show.  Twice is understandable.  But three, four, five, six, etc. times is beating the viewer over the head with a hammer, and it kills the flow of the movie.  The thing is, it’s not her story.  In a sense, it’s not even Dr. King’s; it’s about the events and people in and around Selma and how Dr. King’s choice of the town as the location to demonstrate impacted everyone.

Some people have said that DuVernay should have been nominated for Best Director both because it would have made history, and because of the lack of black nominees in the major categories.  First, if she had been nominated for those reasons that would have been just as wrong as not nominating her because of her race and gender.  And I highly doubt she was left off for either of those things.  People forget that only two years ago Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director for the film that ended up winning Best Picture – something Selma is unlikely to do.  And he’s as white and as male as you can get.

Personally, I think that Selma shows that this is only DuVernay’s third film as a director and that she still needs some experience in how to keep her movie focused on its story, no matter how important other things may be to her.  How often do we hear directors talking about the fact that some of the scenes they cut from their films were their favorite ones, sometimes even the one that made them want to make the movie in the first place?  They say that it’s tough, but as the director you have to make the best decision for the film.

DuVernay has another place where she shows violence being perpetrated against some black children.  It’s a shocking scene and very cinematic, but other than having a character later refer to it in passing, the film completely forgets that it happened and never addresses it.  And for those people who do not know the history of it, they may be confused as to what it has to do with the rest of the movie.  I’ve seen some people wonder if those were Dr. King’s kids and if that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing.  (They are not his.)

In regards to David Oyelowo as Dr. King, he does a fine job.  He has the cadence of the speech patterns down, and he certainly brings the dignity to the role that is required, but also keeps Dr. King a man, not a saint.  Should he have been nominated for Best Actor?  I don’t know yet.  I’ve only seen two of the five nominees so far.

I should note that the song Glory, which plays over the end credits, has been nominated for Best Original Song.  As a standalone song it is good; in the context of the film it is horribly out of place.  We get done watching a historical drama about Dr. King, including archival footage of the real protests right at the end of the film, then the song comes up and it goes into a Rap section.  I just said, “No no no” in reaction to that.  It was horribly out of place at the end of this film, regardless of the fact that the rapper Common had had a supporting role in the film.  And I would have reacted exactly the same way if I had gotten done watching The Imitation Game about the historical events of Alan Turing and then a heavy metal song came up over the end credits.

And it’s not that I hate Rap music.  It’s all about the context.  As much as some people had a WTF reaction a few years ago when the Oscar went to the song It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp from Hustle & Flow (2005), I feel it’s one of the best winners in recent memory because it’s a good song, but more importantly, because it’s integral to the film and not just tacked on over the end credits. 

Ultimately, Selma is a film that is worth seeing primarily for the subject matter and as a part of U.S. history that should not be forgotten.  Just make sure to look up what really happened after you get done so that you don’t take what is onscreen as the gospel truth.  I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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