CAPSULE: SELMA offers a look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he is tested in the complex politics of race in 1965 when he organized the famous march from Selma, Alabama, to the State Capitol in Montgomery. For history about half a century old, it still has the power to enrage and enlighten. The film's style is not entirely successful and sometimes gets in the way of the story-telling. But it still is one of the better films of the year. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Martin Luther King, Jr. (played in the film by English actor David Oyelowo) was a great man who brought about monumental changes and took part in monumental events. That does not make SELMA a great film. As the only full-length feature film about King it is a mixed bag. Told against a background of King being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1964), the Birmingham church bombing (1963), and the intentional disenfranchisement of black voters, this is the story of how King went to Selma, Alabama, to organize and arrange for the famous Selma-to-Montgomery March (1965). The latter required a political game of chess-like complexity with Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and with Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
SELMA is directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. The film wastes no time in grabbing and infuriating the viewer. In the first minutes comes the first atrocious outrage and a second one follows not long after. DuVernay and Webb immediately have any viewer but the most hardened racist as angry as King is. Sadly, too much of this film is of the format of King hearing of some turn of events that aids the racists and he responds in conversation with a reaction that is well-reasoned, but in the rhetoric of a speech. The impression that one gets is that talking with King was often a very tiresome and trying experience. Speech was King's great forte--and one cannot leave the theater without being more convinced that it was a stronger forte than one had thought--but it does make this a rather talky film. While there are some exciting sequences, in general SELMA is rather static.
There were two or three sequences that seemed to hark back to recent films. In one, members of multiple activist groups descend on the King household, presumptuously making themselves at home and making themselves a meal. This was reminiscent of a sequence in, of all films, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Perhaps it was not the fault of the filmmakers, but we are introduced to many characters and many different similar activist organizations that are hard to keep straight. This situation is made even worse because so little effort was made to make the characters look like their real-life and familiar counterparts. Tom Wilkinson looks a little like Johnson, but there is nothing about Tim Roth that suggests George Wallace and Dylan Baker looks not at all like the real J. Edgar Hoover.
Aspects of history are represented differently than their usual public representation. Lyndon Johnson is remembered by many as being strongly pro-civil-rights. Here he is most often obstructionist trying to tread a middle ground between the beliefs of King and of Wallace. Historically there was very strong support for civil rights in the American Jewish community who saw the necessity to support another oppressed people. While other religions are shown explicitly supportive of the marches, there is almost no mention of the Jewish commitment. There is no dialog mentioning the close relationship of Blacks and Jews and there has been reported only one fleeting image of a marcher in a yarmulke.
The film is heavily stylized with most indoor scenes with King shot dimly with film noir lighting. Some of the dialog seemed mumbled, which further obscured the storytelling. For some reason, after some sequences we are shown a line reported by FBI operatives reporting what we had just scene. They had quickly made the point that the FBI was keeping a less than helpful eye on the freedom demonstrations. But that could have been established with a single line of dialog. Yes, the FBI is observing and just making notes rather than participating. What is the point of telling us repeatedly?
I cannot say I agree with all the style statements made by this film, but the film does flesh out history. It is not honest about everything it says, but it does not shy away from telling us of King's faults as well as his virtues. I rate SELMA a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1020072/combined>
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/selma/>
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2015 Mark R. Leeper