Film Review: Selma

Let’s take a look at my general thoughts on the movies either hitting or still in theaters in wide release this Christmas weekend:

Unbroken: Nah
Big Eyes: Nah
American Sniper: Yeah, with reservations.
Into the Woods: Didn’t write a review, because my thoughts sum up as “yeah, it’s OK, Chris Pine’s hilarious, his duet with Billy Magnussen is a shirt-ripping thing of beauty.”
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: God, please no.
Exodus: Gods and Kings: Noooooo.
Penguins of Madagascar: Haters to the left, I laughed.
Big Hero 6: There are no haters, and I also laughed.

And the others–Annie, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, The Gambler, and Wild–I haven’t seen. So we’re looking at four movies that I didn’t like, and four movies that I did, albeit with some reservations*.

Ava DuVernay’s Selma–it is on you to break the tie. Will I be positive or negative this holiday season?

Positive! Yaaaaaaay!

kermit flail

There’s a reason that Selma, about the Martin Luther King-led Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, snuck into my 2014 top ten at the last minute. Several reasons, in fact. You’ll be hearing a lot about David Oyelowo’s performance in the film, and rightfully so–his version of MLK blends gravity and humanity, impressing with his pitch-perfect voice and movements, while at the same time never seeming like an impersonation of one of American history’s most iconic figures. And I was pleasantly surprised by Carmen Ejogo–I’ve never seen her in anything before, though she’s been in a lot–who imbued Coretta Scott King with a quiet, eye-catching power.

The movie has its flaws. Very few of King’s lieutenants in the Civil Rights movement are fleshed out at all, for example. This is very much a movie about the Civil Rights movement through the prism of Dr. King, so I’m not saying I wanted or needed a run-down of “This is who this person is and why they’re important. Now this person. Now this person.” But there are some really talented actors here (André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson), and it would’ve been nice for the majority of them to have something more to do than, basically, fill out the scenes and occasionally say lines when MLK’s doing something important and needs people standing around and agreeing with him.

That said, Selma had my heart in my throat for approximately 90% of its run-time, which as far as I’m concerned makes its a supremely successful film. There hardly a bum note in the acting–Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Nigel Thatch in a small role as Malcolm X were all superb. I wasn’t even bugged by the presence of Oprah, whose role was small enough so as not to be overly obtrusive. Actor-wise, the only element that was off for me was Jeremy Strong as James Reeb, a white minster who answers King’s call to march. He’s a little bit too wide-eyed, a little bit too innocent and sweet, his dialogue a little bit too clunky and “I need to have this character monologue some points of view that I need to get in the film. Martin Luther King is the greatest!”

Aside from that one character, Selma doesn’t try to de-complicate this messy era of history, to clean it up for modern audiences and say “This happened, but we got past it and it’s over now.” Particularly given current events, scenes where police brutality are discussed were poignant and difficult to watch. I particularly like the choice of screenwriter Paul Webb, during the triumphant scene where LBJ finally decides to support the Voting Rights Act, to have the President say the n-word. The audience I was in literally gasped. “Look at this,” Webb seems to say–“racism is about more than how people act in public, when they’re know they’re being judged by their peers”–or, in LBJ’s case, by history. “It’s about deep-seated prejudices that have taken root over centuries and manifest themselves even in progressive-appearing people. Racism is insidious, and making progress to end it is about more than just changing a few laws, securing a few landmark victories, and sitting down to rest.” The need for action is constant. Martin Luther King knew it, and Selma does, too.

*This isn’t taking into account limited releases. Leviathan and Two Days, One Night are in the “yes” pile, and The Interview is yes-ish.

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