Selma: A Relevant Historical Drama Bursting With Life (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 11, 2015 | 4 Comments

The march in SelmaA riveting chronicle of suppressed anger, unbelievable bravery, and shocking racism, Ava DuVernay’s Selma uses a momentous moment in history to tell the story of a man’s entire life, and of a country’s ceaseless struggle. Rather than make a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic, DuVernay has distilled the essence of MLK into a finely crafted historical film that’s almost necessary viewing after the racial violence of the past year. It’s the story of the Dream in action.

Selma starts with a shot of the face of Martin Luther King Jr., centered and staring straight at us. He’s preparing his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s honored by the award, but less than satisfied with the progress being made. Racism still lies deep in the hearts of many whites, especially Southerners. By law, blacks are allowed to vote, but King knows that rule isn’t affecting anything. He confronts Lyndon B. Johnson, who’s understanding at best, indifferent at worst. Something must be done, King demands, and “it cannot wait”. But it must, Johnson tells him. And so King and a group of fellow activists, friends, and SNCC members rally for a series of marches in the heart of bigoted America: Selma, Alabama. It’s a final, collective push for black voting rights everywhere.

Director DuVernay, who took over the project when Lee Daniels dropped out to make The Butler, has done an astounding job at narrowing down the essentials of the Civil Rights movement into a cohesive but intricately detailed two-hour film. Though the filmmakers weren’t allowed to use King’s original speeches, the speeches DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have written feel as thoughtful and authentic as the real stuff. The script manages to fit in a whole bunch of history , fromicons (Malcolm X, J. Edgar Hoover) to pivotal moments in the lead-up to the marches (the Birmingham bombing, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson). But more crucially, Selma is Selma, not King. The Selma marches were a result of cunning strategics and unknowable courage made possible by blacks daring to dream, as well as whites who knew this effort needed every man and woman willing to help. When the first march (called Bloody Sunday) does come, and it sure hits hard, it’s all the more powerful because we have seen the work it took to get there- the brunch meetings, the late night phone-calls, the perfecting of speeches, the gathering of men and women from all around. Selma is a film that rarely glosses over the details, and instead shows us what these men and women were willing to sacrifice. In this sense, it’s not unlike Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which showed us the intricacies of political meetings and manipulation leading up to a momentous historical triumph.

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) calls for "massive demonstrations" against racism

And just as Daniel Day-Lewis found the humanity in the myth, Selma gives us with Martin Luther King Jr. the hard-worker, rather than the dreamer. After tiny parts in huge films, David Oyelowo makes the jump to serious leading man. He slips into MLK, inhabiting the role in just about every way. Physically, he’s got it all down: the portly physique, the refined mustache, that accent. But he also gets to the heart of the man’s struggle for racial equality. King wants change, but he’s not sure how far he’s willing to go. He wants “massive demonstrations”, but is it worth it if his dear friends and colleagues are killed in the process? Oyelowo isn’t afraid to delve into King’s personal troubles, either. In one uncomfortable scene, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him over allegations of infidelity. “Do you love me? Have you loved another woman?”, she questions. It’s a big dramatic moment, but Oyelowo underplays it, with long pauses of silence.

Unlike some biopics, Selma is a true ensemble film. Standouts include Stephan James as SNCC member John Lewis; Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, one of MLK’s closest friends; and Keith Stanfield as the doomed activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. And there are brief, fine, slightly distracting cameos from Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Martin Sheen.

I’ve offered nothing but praise for Selma so far, but DuVernay makes a few missteps. The Birmingham bombing scene starts with some genuine hair-style chit-chat between the girls, but then becomes  an overblown, slo-motion explosion. And there are a few moments, particularly early on, with some stagey acting and typical biopic politeness. But these are minor quibbles with a vital film, bursting with life. There are several impeccably moving scenes: King calling up Mahalia Jackson to hear her sing; the Bloody Sunday march sequence; the final speech.

Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King in SelmaVisually, the film is an atmospheric beauty. Cinematographer Bradford Young gives the whole film a warm haze, the prison scenes are lit with a shadowy sorrow, and the marching sequences are a chaotic collage of violence. But you don’t go to Selma for the visuals. You go because King’s call for equality across all color lines couldn’t be more meaningful right now. We are reminded of how far we’ve come, but also of the progress we still have to make. We imagine the day when the whole world wakes up to reality and realizes that dream. As John Legend sings over the credits:

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory
Oh, glory, glory


4 Responses to “Selma: A Relevant Historical Drama Bursting With Life (Flack’s Review)”

  1. Anisa
    January 15th, 2015 @ 12:02 am

    You wrote so eloquently about the heart and essence of the story – shining a light on the beauty of the filmmaking, King as a man not a god, the harsh reality of racism and violence, and the determination of the human spirit despite the obstacles. Thank you for such a thoughtful review.

  2. Sherry Gordon
    January 17th, 2015 @ 12:34 am

    Hello, there! I am absolutely impressed with your very spectacular and insightful analysis of this wonderful film. You did an all-star job on this, young man. You and your twin brother have such talented potential in your skillful writing and reviews. I believe someday you both will go very far as writers and fantastic reviewers of movies and other stuff! Dylan and Ethan, you two inspire me greatly, and I predict a great futures for you both in your future careers because you both have the brilliance, skills, and talents to go very far! Thank-you for your very fine and excellent writing contributions!!!!!!

  3. steve itkin
    January 17th, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    I have not seen Selma yet, sad to say. But will soon! Your review makes me want to go this minute! I am disappointed in the initial press about the Johnson legacy as it pertains to this piece of history. What will be interesting to me is that I lived through this part of history and was quite aware of what was going on. I have my own take, and unfortunately the dream has still not been totally realized. You two boys are part of the great man’s dream. I savor that.

  4. Andrea Itkin
    January 17th, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    Your review moved me almost as much as the film did.

    However, I don’t agree about the scene in which the church is blown up with the little girls in it. I thought it succeeded in bringing the audience into the horror of the moment – four pretty, excited little girls literally being blown to bits. I remember that day and I remember trying to picture it. I was the same age as three of the girls were at the time. Sadly, there are still people so sure of their point of view that they feel justified to bully, torture and sometimes kill others who don’t agree with them or who simply represent what they don’t like.

    I also loved that the movie showed King’s struggle with the unintended consequences of what he was doing. And though people seem to have trouble with the reality of LBJ’s position in the movie, I thought the film version did an excellent job of showing how a president has a whole different set of things to consider when making a decision about when and how to act upon an issue he may believe has merit. And it showed how it’s the people who need to convince a president that he needs to do something.

    Anyway, your reviews never disappoint. Thanks.

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