Review by-Jarrett Leahy
During the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, there was no bigger name than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A man of faith who preached nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, King’s dedication to the furtherance of African-American rights has yet to be surpassed. Set during the spring of 1965, Dr. King, fresh off the victory of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, turned his attention to another pressing issue plaguing his fellow African Americans. Desperate to reverse discriminatory laws that prevented Southern Blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote, King and his associats chose Selma, a tiny town in rural Alabama, as the rallying point for a protest march to the Alabama capital of Montgomery. This set in motion the inevitable showdown with those opposed to King and his call for change.
The success of Selma sheds light yet again on the topic of female directors. Despite many great social changes over the last few decades, the lack of equal opportunity for women in film remains a concerning problem in this billion dollar industry. While I look forward to the day when female filmmakers are seen as equals and not treated as some sort of novelty or rarity, the only way to reach some semblance of egalitarianism is if their plight for equality is brought to the forefront, and the merits of their talents are celebrated. So please allow me then to introduce to you filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Born in August of 1972, this Los Angeles native made a splash on the Hollywood scene when her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, earned her the Best Director prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first African-American woman to receive such honors. Selma continues her string of firsts, as she became the first African-American woman to be a Golden Globe nominee in the Best Director category.
As her third feature, Selma was not originally slated to be directed by DuVernay. Instead, Lee Daniels of The Butler and Precious fame was hired to lead the production. It was only after Daniels stepped down that DuVernay was brought in to helm this biopic at the behest of the film’s leading man, David Oyelowo. Hampered by the fact that another studio had already secured the rights to Dr. King’s copyrighted speeches, DuVernay was forced to write different variations of King’s sermons. While it was initually a bit disheartening knowing King’s authorized words were not being spoken on screen, I must praise DuVernay’s remarkable ability to expertly capture the power and stirring eloquence Dr. King was known for. Never did I feel that the words spoken could not have come from Dr. King’s mouth. DuVernay also does a skillful job recreating that time period’s heightened sense of anxiety. Even with full knowledge of how many of the main events transpired, Selma manages to keep the viewer unnerved to the end.
Unfortunately, the film is not free of controversy. Many critics and historians have raised concerns over DuVernay’s dipiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by two-time Oscar nominee, Tom Wilkinson. Known as an ally to the Civil Rights movement, some were left questioning the filmmaker’s choice to characterize LBJ as an unwilling proponent to the Selma cause. If this proves to be true, I too question this unnecessary choice to sacrifice historical accuracy for extra drama. While I’m by no means naïve to the fact that movies take creative liberties with their depictions, there is, far and away, enough melodramatic tension in this gripping story without having to drum up historical falsities. DuVernay should have known better.
When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced, as with most years, a handful of omissions or “snubs” were identified and debated. Among those passed over, the most conspicuous is by far David Oyelowo. An English actor and graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Oyelowo saw Selma as his chance to shine and reportedly fought for over seven years to win the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This passionate dedication to the part comes across on screen tenfold. While the physical resemblance is quite striking, it’s Oyelowo’s awe-inspiring ability to capture the mannerisms, aura, and overall presence of this powerful figure in our country’s history that makes this performance one for the record books. Despite the lack of access to King’s exact speeches, Oyelowo’s powerful articulation of Dr. King’s message offers the viewer a stirring portrayal that avoids becoming too reverential and instead brings a level of humanity to such an almost mythical public figure. As the significance of Oyelowo’s omission from the Best Actor category began to truly set in, many investigated, looking for possible explanations as to how and why such a thing could happen. It was later reported that Paramount, the studio behind Selma, failed to send “screeners” of the film to many of the Academy voters before they had to select their nominations. This glaring error on the studio’s part is the only possible explanation I can come up with for Oyelowo being left off the nomination list, for there are not five better performances in 2014.
Overall, my appreciation for Selma is a bit more tempered in comparison to some others who have seen it. The issues surrounding the story’s depiction of President Johnson, the lack of Martin Luther King’s true speeches, and handful of unusual cinematography choices were difficult to completely ignore and kept the film from reaching the lofty status some have bestowed upon it. But that’s not to say I’m not impressed with what Ava DuVernay was able to create. Her film dramatically captures the uncertainty and emotional furor of that time period, displaying on screen the reasons why so many African Americans, and whites, were compelled to fight for change. Selma also offers a younger generation of African-American youth a glimpse at the sacrifices it took from everyday citizens to bring about the changes they readily enjoy today. But, despite the Oscar snub, for all intents and purposes, Selma is a Best Actor movie, or a film where the actor’s performance outshines or overpowers the overall film. As time goes on, I foresee Selma settling into some version of relative obscurity, for other than Oyelowo’s performance, there is, unfortunately, nothing all together spectacular to set Selma apart from the recent glut of biopics and keep it at the forefront of critics and fans’ consciousness.