Sunday, February 1, 2015


SELMA is an exemplary contemporary film mainly because of what it doesn't do:

1.  Bathe its real life personalities in some phony, angelic light. 
2.  Portray them as always being correct, or at least never wrong.
3.  Refuse to consider other points of view.
4.  Beat audiences over the head with its own sense of importance. 
5.  Pound eardrums with a relentlessly majestic score.
6.  Stage one Big Scene after another with no breathing room or calm transitions. 
7.  Parade endless star cameos.  While there are a few, they are fairly low key and a majority of the cast will be unfamiliar to most viewers.

Initially, I had written SELMA off as mere Oscar bait, with its guaranteed-to-appeal-to-Academy-voters true life story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts in 1965 to organize marches from the small town of Selma, Alabama all the way to Montgomery.   It follows, thematically at least, in the formidable footsteps of last year's (also produced by Brad Pitt) 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Academy Award winner for Best Picture.  I've yet to see that film and several other "important" ones like it.  I'm sure it is worthwhile, but I decided that I had had enough of racial dramas that put our faces front and center for unspeakable violence and cruelty, necessary as it may be to accurately depict the atrocities of narrow-mindedness toward those with differently colored skin.  I also tend to pass on many "based on true events" stories as they are often guilty of the above seven deadly sins of the Self-Consciously Important Historical Drama. And honestly, reading about such events is almost always a favorable option.

Additionally, so many liberties are taken with the facts of your average SCIHD that you're not sure what to believe.  It alarmed me that so many younger moviegoers took Oliver Stone's JFK film in 1991 as a to-the-letter historical document rather than a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. OK, that's a bit harsh, and I was on line with a lot of Stone's views but you get my point.

Much criticism has been leveled at SELMA for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as an antagonist to MLK.  As played by English actor Tom Wilkinson, LBJ is depicted as an impatient, highly reluctant "obstructionist" who wavered on legislation to allow voting rights for blacks in the South, insisting he had more important issues with which to contend. SELMA's alleged historical revision also allows that the President enlisted the FBI to monitor King's doings which led to a damning audio tape, confirming the reverend's infidelities. Bill Moyers, LBJ's domestic policy advisor and press secretary, has been especially vocal in his accusations of the film's creative license and outright falsehoods.

Director Ava DuVernay has gone on the defense for her film, correctly citing that she has not attempted to make a documentary, but rather has told a story of civil rights battles that indeed led to LBJ's solicitation of Congress to pass a bill eliminating restrictions on voting for black individuals.  DuVernay is adamant in that she didn't want her film to be another historical recount of the struggle of African-Americans seen through the eyes of a "white savior" ala Kevin Kline in CRY FREEDOM and Matthew Broderick in GLORY.   There are many good rebuttals on both sides of this issue out there, but I wonder why DuVernay had screenwriter Paul Webb felt the need to add this conflict to a story that already had enough, especially with Alabama governor George Wallace (played by another Englishman, Tim Roth) providing resistance to the marches.

David Oyelowo does just fine as King, perhaps capturing more of the essence of the (later) slain fighter for equal rights than any recognizable character traits.   The entire cast is well selected, including one of SELMA's producers, Oprah Winfrey.  She may not be nominated (as she was for THE COLOR PURPLE back in the '80s) for anything for her scant screen time but she makes an impression.  Carmen Ejogo seamlessly plays Coretta King and does a nice job with that moment she hears the "sex tape".  Very understated, just like most of the movie.  Unlike so many others of its type.
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