Selma (2014)

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Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb

Rated PG-13

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson
Andre Holland as Andrew Young
Lorraine Toussiant as Amelia Boynton Robinson
Common as James Bevel
Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash
Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover
Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Fred Gray
Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson
Tim Roth as George Wallace
Sam Houston as Sheriff Jim Clark
Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper
Jeremy Strong as James Reeb
Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X
Martin Sheen as Frank Minis Johnson

How little progress we have made in 50 years.

Ava DuVernay’s thought-provoking and insightful film Selma is an examination of the landmark voting-rights march in 1965, from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. Race politics are as controversial and newsworthy in 2015 as they were in 1965. From the Ferguson non-indictment to the recent rioting in Baltimore, the media is feeding the public one side of the story, as always, and the general population is reacting accordingly. DuVernay’s docudrama reminds of us of MLK’s strengths: compassion, critical thinking, and the desire for equality juxtaposed with the embracing of our unique and individual differences. King demanded we look beyond what we were (and are) being told, finding strength in his convictions.

Selma opens on a powerful note, with Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, once again reminding us what a great actress she can be) being rejected when she attempts to register to vote. Cooper – who lived to be 100 – made headlines when she decked the revoltingly racist Sheriff Jim Clark (Sam Houston). We may never know the truth about actually occurred in Baltimore or Ferguson, and while I do not excuse violence against the police, many officers carry a gun and such “power” goes north. Winfrey has few lines in this role, but it’s powerful nonetheless. We meet Annie after a brief montage of the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four young African-American girls were murdered. Two months later, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. DuVernay, directing from a polished and intelligent script by Paul Webb, does not condescend that viewers are unaware of this turbulent time in America.

The heart of the film, of course, is in the story of King’s pursuit of voting rights for African-Americans. Legally, they had the right to vote in 1965, but intimidation and threats from white law enforcement made it nearly impossible. Martin (David Oyelowo in a riveting performance) is arrested, and he presses President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, convincing enough) to take action. Johnson is ambivalent to take action, another reminder of how little things have changed since these events took place. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) both express their belief that King is trouble. Oyelowo is superb in conveying King’s distress as his efforts for non-violent protesting are met with hatred, ignorance, fear, bigotry, and police-instigated violence.

One of the best merits of Selma is the richly portrayed female characters. As Coretta Scott King, Carmen Ejogo is impressive as King’s dutiful, supportive, and resourceful wife. When Coretta consults Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), Martin reacts with truthful jealousy, accusing her of being “enamored.” In fact, King’s infidelities are used against him, and they provide a potent, realistic scene between King and Coretta. Portraying King’s dalliances with other women is a wise move on the part DuVernay. King was a man – a good one, but he was no saint – and it’s important to remember that heroes gain much wisdom from judgment errors and humbling life experiences.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Toussaint (recently a great villain on Orange is the New Black) is quietly noble and dignified as Civil Rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson. Like Winfrey, Toussaint’s dialogue is spare. But through factual characters like Robinson, we see the weary, torn down courage in the eyes of the put-upon. DuVernay sees their struggle, and the fight is portrayed with courage and hope. We never seen the activists as victims.

Roth gives us Wallace as he was: full of anger and contradictions. It’s jarring to hear him call Sheriff Clark “backwoods white trash” (true descriptions), but was Wallace any better? I love Wilkinson, but his LBJ is strangely subdued. Johnson was not an under-the-radar kinda guy. But Wilkinson’s characterization of LBJ is a reminder of how he alienated and dismantled the Democratic Party, largely over Vietnam and the stalling of the Voting Rights Act. DuVernay reminds us of LBJ’s inactivity when Jimmie Lee Jackson is brutally murdered by a police officer, but he calls the widow of white activist Rev. James Reeb after he is beaten to death.

Bradford Young’s cinematography of the “Bloody Sunday” footage has a disturbing and effective vibe that recalls a documentary. These are some of the film’s most impactful sequences. We are watching U.S. history, in perhaps its most shameful hour.

King faces staunch criticism from the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). DuVernay does not spend time reenacting the assassination of King. The film ends (this is no spoiler) on a note of triumph. The Oscar-winning “Glory” is a (mostly) glorious capper for one of the year’s best films.

Now … was the film Oscar snubbed? Forget any hot air gassed out by Rev. Al Sharpton. Selma was nominated for Best Picture, and “Glory” won Best Original Song. It’s a lovely song, despite some lyrics that can be misleading. References to Ferguson and “we stand up” fail to mention the violent riots that took place. But “Glory” is a reminder of why this category was once an important reflection of a film’s themes.

Regardless, 2014 was brilliant year for film: Birdman, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Still Alice, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, and many more. I don’t know how voters can be called racist when the film is nominated for the year’s biggest honor. Which of the above films should have been overlooked in favor of more honors for Selma? Oyelowo was the film’s best chance of an acting nomination. Had he been nominated, I would have applauded the nod. But among the five Lead Actor nominees, I don’t know whom I would have left out. Again, Oscar nominations, like so many other things, are politically motivated. Perhaps the events in Ferguson kept audiences and voters away from Selma. Do they feel like it is enough already? (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, on the other hand, was absolutely snubbed back in 1993. Arguably, Malcolm X should have a national holiday dedicated to his honor.) In the 23 years since Malcolm X was released, it feels like race relations have worsened. When will we see progress? A definitive answer is impossible, but DuVernay’s superb film challenges us to examine our own beliefs, and Selma empowers us to strive … to be better. We shall overcome, and the time is now.

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