Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
The world is a screwed up place with inequality every which way you look. But it’s worthwhile remembering how much worse it used to be, and that there is always hope for change. Ava DuVernay’s Selma documents Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) fight for civil rights in 1965 Selma, Alabama, and the associated carnage care of a morally-depraved government and backwards law enforcement.Selma isn’t so much a biopic, as much as a snapshot of a brief – but extremely significant – period during the Civil Rights Movement. But it does go some way to revealing the effect of King’s involvement and leadership on his family, as well as on his own psyche. Strains are evident in his marriage to Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and his four children are barely seen – family is not his highest priority. He grapples with major decisions regarding the peace protests, and his feelings of guilt over the bloodshed are clear. Similar to last year’s Mandela, Selma highlights the inevitable flaws in a celebrated hero.
David Oyelowo perfectly captures King’s ferocious passion and leadership, which is never more evident than during his rousing speeches to captivated audiences. Unfortunately, though I wasn’t well-versed enough in civil rights history to notice, the speeches included within the film are all paraphrased due to copyright laws (the MLK estate has sold the rights to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for another slated film). Nevertheless, these scenes pack a punch, and King’s ability to inspire is evident. I was, however, disappointed by the decision to run postscript regarding various characters over the top of King’s final speech. It’s near impossible to fully take in King’s words while reading about each character’s destiny, especially when you’re anticipating what they will say about King (incidentally, this is the third best picture nominee that ends with post script about the death of its protagonist).
What hits home more than King’s motivational speeches, however, is the absolute lack of moral fibre shown in countless politicians, law enforcers, and ignorant members of the public. The peaceful protestors are bludgeoned and shot at by police, while lowlife scum stand by and cheer. Some are killed for absolutely no reason other than racial hate. I don’t know how many times I uttered “WTF” while watching this film. Of course it isn’t revelatory, and we see this bullshit time and time again in film, news media, and unfortunately even sometimes in our day to day encounters. But it never stops being utterly abhorrent and incomprehensible. One woman in my cinema walked out during the most traumatic scene (Bloody Sunday), and I don’t blame her. However, it’s certainly worth reminding ourselves of the dark pages in history (and it’s not as challenging to watch as 12 Years a Slave).
Controversy has surrounded the release of Selma due to accusations of historical inaccuracies, namely its treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by the splendid Tom Wilkinson) who is made out to be a right cock up until the eleventh hour when his hand is forced. Johnson tells King that he has more pressing priorities than black voters’ rights (hmmm who does that sentiment remind you of?) and doesn’t address the matter until the bloodshed becomes too much (and white). But really, Johnson has nothing on Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Tim Roth) who perfectly demonstrates the pure bile that festers in government. Roth is creepy as hell in the role, and he makes Johnson look simply more like an imbecile than a true bigot (again, remind you of anyone?)
Selma shares much in common with Lee Daniel’s 2013 The Butler, albeit with a tighter focus and timeline. Both films explore racial inequality and its political implications in America, and share cast members David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. Lee Daniels was also originally set to direct Selma (with some dubious casting choices – Hugh Jackman as a complete racist arsehole? Yeah nah) but the film is in good hands with DuVernay. Though there are a few talky one-on-one moments that lose steam, she makes some terrific directing choices throughout the film – particularly in affecting scenes depicting death, as well as a brilliant scene between King and Coretta where Coretta questions her husband’s fidelity. There is some exquisite framing of shots, and DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young make great use of light. The soundtrack is pretty rad too, with John Legend and Common’s ‘Glory’ likely to win best original song at next week’s Academy Awards. The calibre of acting is high, although the large number of characters mean they mostly only get limited screen time (even Cuba!)
Much has been made of the apparent snubbing of Selma (in directing and acting categories) by an assumedly racist academy of Oscar voters, despite the film receiving a nomination for best picture. While it’s food for thought (and history shows that female directors are rarely acknowledged come Oscar time, let alone black female directors who have never been nominated) it’s not an altogether convincing claim when you learn that the film studio sent out very late screeners to Academy members. In that respect, it did well to even get a best picture nomination. In 2013 The Butler was snubbed completely, but in 2014 12 Years a Slave won best film and best supporting actress (but not best director). Do the Academy throw out occasional token black votes to avoid accusations of racism? Do they deliberately snub deserving nominees on the basis of colour? Or did DuVernay and Oyelowo miss out on nominations simply because there were five more deserving nominees in their categories? It’s difficult to say. But it is worthwhile bringing the issue to attention and challenging an institution that is made up mostly of old white men.
Selma will make many viewers angry, but for the right reasons. It works as a condensed history lesson which is explained in straight-forward terms, and although some elements may be historically inaccurate, the depiction of racial violence is not. While bigotry and inequality still remain, it’s heartening to remember how far we’ve come and the incredible achievements of one man.