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Selma - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

The telling of the story in Selma can seem deceptively simple and slow at first, but upon further reflection, it becomes clear that director Ava DuVernay knows exactly what she's doing, making very deliberate choices, achieving maximum impact for all its points.

Two black men sat a few rows ahead of me at the screening I attended, each of them wearing the same T-shirt -- black, with white lettering that read, I CAN'T BREATHE. This is both notable and relevant to this film because of everything Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked for, and this film forces us to acknowledge, has yet fully to achieve. Watching Selma is genuinely exasperating on this level, as it chronicles the fight for the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, staying fully within that setting, yet managing an extra level of poignancy in light of recent events. We still have white police officers committing heinous crimes against black people whose peers can't get on juries to convict them because their right to vote is suppressed.

It's unfuriating, in all the right ways, and one gets the sense that Duvernay means it to be. She gives this film a perfectly subtle touch, considering the massive amount of violence that occurred in the 60s, and yet it is shown sparingly onscreen here -- to maximize its impact, rather than allow us to get desensitized to it. Selma doesn't give anyone a pass: not the leaders of King's time; not the fim's modern audiences; not even Martin Luther King himself. This may be the first mainstream acknowledgment of King's infidelities, presented in a perfectly executed scene in the most respectable way possible. And it leaves his subtly confrontational wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, with a quiet strength all her own), with a dignity she deserves.

Biopics tend to work better when they focus on a singular event in a person's life, rather than paint broad strokes over decades -- the latter approach is why films like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom or The Butler don't quite meet their full potential. Selma smartly hones in on one particular, game-changing protest: a march from the town of Selma to Birmingham, Alabama. It's the perfect choice for a great film about Dr. King, as it occurred after much work had already been done, making King a household name, and directly led to so much, both triumphant and tragic, to happen after.

The film opens with Dr. King, playing by a truly dynamic David Oyelowo, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. We know he's come a long way already. But before we know it, we're transferred to a scene of several young black girls chatting as they walk down a staircase in a church -- when a bomb explodes. The camera lingers, both on a rather abstract rendering of slow-motion limbs flying in the air through smoke and debris, and of the collapsed church with the children's bodies mixed in. These are images meant to haunt us, and they do.

King realizes he's needed back in the South, although he pays several visits to President Johnson (the always great Tom Wilkinson), who takes a long time to come around to taking King seriously. Johnson foolishly tries to placate King with talk of working on poverty, asking him to tone down the protests. King understandably and justifiably tells him the issue of voter suppression cannot wait. It takes seeing nationally televised footage of police brutality in Selma for Johnson to see the seriousness of the situation.

The powers that be in Alabama, including a racist nutso Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and an only slightly less nutso racist Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), insist that the demonstrations are illegally "disturbing the peace." They block a bridge into the town, which is where the most publicized brutality takes place. The worst, including an officer shooting a young black man in cold blood, occurs during a night march while King is out of town. DuVernay might better have chosen to explain why a night march was held to begin with; as presented here, it actually doesn't seem all that sensible, in light of the desire to create national awareness. The police attack at this march for the very reason that they know there will be fewer cameras.

But, the lost life serves as a catalyst, and it's too bad it takes such a tipping point of severity before the general public is finally jolted out of their complacency -- another reminder of the issues we still face today. King calls people of all faiths and races to join them in a second attempt at that fifty-mile march to Birmingham, and many of them come; the second demonstration is far larger, a third of them white. This is noted in one of the more chilling parts of this story, as one of several points of activity logged by FBI surveillance. In one scene, set in a jail sell, a friend tells King, "This cell is probably bugged." Although they laugh, it's not really a joke; these people are actually right to be paranoid.

Another person is beaten to death, this one a white minister. One of the assailants has a particularly memorable line: "You know what I hate more than niggers? White niggers!" And one of many things Selma does that few other films can manage is treat the tragedy of death, regardless of race, with equality. We're not meant to think of this new incident as more or less tragic than the young black man murdered by a cop. It's simply another senseless death perpetrated by racists.

Selma is often difficult to watch just because of the continued relevance of what Martin Luther King worked for, and the nagging question of how much of his work was done in vain. None of it, arguably; but progress can be so painfully slow. These events occurred fifty years ago, and how much has really changed? Our current Supreme Court even recently struck down part of the Civil Rights Act, the legislation that the Selma march directly led to, which is depressing indeed. The film smartly avoids telegraphing any of these parallels to the current day, but makes them easy to think about.

If there's any unfortunate thing about Selma as a film, it's the writing, which is merely decent, and could never stack up to the content of King's actual words and speeches, many of which have made an indelible mark on history. This was a truly charismatic and articulate (if imperfect) man, and Oyelowo channels his spirit well. But if you want to be inspired by dialogue, just look at footage of the actual man. If you want to be inspired by action, and perhaps even feel called to action, however, then look no further than this movie.

David Oyelowo (center) holds it together in SELMA.

Overall: A-
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