Like two of the other most ballyhooed films from 2014 (Boyhood and Birdman), Selma is a really good film that has been a bit oversold. I suppose if one is going to overrate a film, it might as well be one as noble as this, but in the slightly paraphrased words of my girlfriend, “I just wish they would’ve gotten the facts straight and given this girl a little more gospel.” There’s something curiously missing from Ava DuVernay’s intelligently directed and reverent biopic of our nation’s most celebrated reverend and Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., despite many convenient current parallels reminding informed viewers there is still so much work to be done. That missing piece is the call to action.
Standing tall in the film are DuVernay’s depiction of the most harrowing events (from the bombing of the four little girls in the church and the violent police suppression of the first attempt to march across the bridge out of Selma towards Montgomery, to the quieter but equally disturbing moments showing the casually institutionalized hate-fueled suppression of the right to vote in court houses across the Deep South) and, naturally, David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as MLK.
DuVernay, taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it takes to organize a meaningful march against injustice and how that can be used as a tool to raise public sentiment for the passing of legislation (in this case, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965). The tenants of nonviolent protest are on glorious display here, showing how powerfully effective yet dangerous it can be, as it coaxes the irrational radicals out into the open light of day where those watching on the sidelines are suddenly spurred to stand up because they are left with no other option once violence erupts against the peaceful marchers.
Sadly, Paul Webb’s uneven screenplay betrays both DuVernay’s skills and Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal as the writer plays loose with some key facts and insists on fitting King into the archetypal mold of a leader riddled with self-doubt. Most notable is the mangling of King’s interactions and meetings with President Lyndon Johnson. The film overly dramatizes and misrepresents the chronology of their tete-a-tete making it seem as if LBJ was the primary roadblock and his motivations murky. I won’t go off on a “historical inaccuracies” diatribe here (this Time article is a great place to get more details on the that so click here), and no historical drama is ever going to be 100% accurate, but I feel Webb steps over the line just a bit too much on these key pieces of the story. Thankfully, Oyelowo and Tom Wilkinson (as LBJ) are confident enough performers to still make these scenes sting and sing. I felt too much of the film, however, focused on King’s self-doubt and sometimes overly cautious wishy-washy decision-making, leaving Oyelowo adrift in other moments waiting for the next speech or phone call to LBJ to strut his stuff.
When DuVernay and Oyelowo are allowed to simply re-enact King’s sermons and speeches, the film soars to inspirational heights and you feel like you are getting a first-hand glimpse into what it must’ve been like to be there in awe of his skills of language, persuasion and theatricality used to rally against grotesque injustice. I craved more scenes like this, a larger forward propelling sense of energy…a little bit more of that gospel – not in the religious sense – but in the sense of spectacle for the purpose of pushing forward what is right and just. If only the rest of the film wasn’t filled with a larger sense of dispassionate and somewhat intangible disconnect despite its keen attention to period detail in the sets, costumes and mannerisms.
On the surface it would seem the film ended on a high note with King and his followers safely in Montgomery where he gave a rousing and historic speech while captions informed of us the fate of some key players and that the Voting Rights Act was successfully passed. The filmmakers, however, missed a golden opportunity to remind viewers that is was just in 2013 that the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (for more on that, click here) in the first successful effort to begin dismantling all that King had worked for. Why did they stop short of a clear call to action?
It would seem there is plenty worth marching for today and so much work left to be done. When is enough, enough, and when are we going to stand up and go back to that bridge?
Written by David H. Schleicher