Selma (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Running Time: 127 min.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Common
Small role: Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey, Dylan Baker, Niecy Nash, Jeremy Strong
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Paul Webb
Review published January 11, 2014
Set primarily in 1964, Selma deals with a particularly important era in the civil rights movement in America, of particular importance as a defining moment in the life and times of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo, Interstellar). King was busy urging President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson, Belle) to try to push through a voting-rights act to ensure that blacks were given an equal chance to vote, especially in the formerly segregated South that kept throwing obstacles like poll taxes, and tests on literacy and civics, in order to cast a ballot, so that they could leverage some modicum of power against a status quo stacked heavily against them.
The people were growing fed up about the blind eye from the Federal government (which was spending more time engaged in surveillance of King and the marchers), and planned a fifty-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest. However, the racist local and state leaders, spearheaded by Gov. George Wallace (Roth, Arbitrage), continued to make things difficult for African-Americans to succeed, and King became involved, thinking, rightly, that violence would inevitably erupt, and that minimizing the friction would be the only way to save not only lives, but the voting-rights movement itself.
British actor David Oyelowo is a force to be reckoned with as King, truly magnifying, especially when engaged in the kind of soaring, inspiration rhetoric that the great orator has inspired millions with in his electrifying speeches (speeches, as it turns out, that are not King's; director DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow) scripted them herself so as not to infringe on the King family's copyright). It's the stuff that can turn a solid character actor into a highly sought-after lead performer for many years to come, and one I can see take home Oscar gold in the future, if not for this very film.
For as many accolades as a gaggle of other critics are bestowing upon Selma, I don't quite understand the degree of their collective passion. The film certainly has a dynamite central performance by Oyelowo, some compelling moments in the story, and good dramatic weight at its core storyline, I'll agree. But, despite some formidable strengths, the screenplay contains some wince-inducing dialogue from first-timer Paul Webb, caricatured characterizations, stiff and clumsy directorial framing (especially the way key historical characters are always in frame of King during marches even if they weren't in real life), bland and stagy cinematography, lackluster and sometime overbearing musical score, distracting celebrity supporting roles, and some significantly dubious finagling of facts. It also has one of the most misplaced fancy end-credit montages I've ever seen, though I won't score it lower because of that, since you have the option of not watching it. I do like the movie enough to recommend, but I do not consider it a Best Picture-worthy effort in execution. Without Oyelowo, it's on par TV movie programming for a basic cable network.
One thing to admire is that it does limit its scope to just the Selma situation. Akin to Spielberg's Lincoln (which Oyelowo also participated in), this is not a biopic of Martin Luther King, but merely his involvement in a tense sociopolitical situation that had a great impact on American civil rights history. However, Lincoln was more ambitious in that it dealt with a tricky and racially-charged subject in a very layered and complex way. Selma also deals with a tricky and racially-charged subject, but feels more like a collection of reductive, storybook anecdotes than as a realistic peek behind the scenes of great figures of social change. Conversations between King and LBJ seem more like trying to hit simple beats, and others involving such well-known figures of the era like Malcolm X and J. Edgar Hoover are uncomfortably shoehorned in (I winced when a character dropped in a "J. Edgar" in the middle of a conversation (he was pretty much referred to only as "Edgar" or "Mr. Hoover" around Washington), lest we forget who we're watching.)
For showcasing an important moment in American history, and for its sizzling central performance capturing a well-known and heroic historical icon, Selma merits a viewing, even with a clunky script, broad conjecture, and occasionally awkward presentation. It's a vitally important subject that merits viewing, especially since it is a rarely filmed chapter in history, but, despite knowing that some readers of this review will have feathers ruffled that I'm not giving a 5-star review to it just because it is politically relevant, I'm afraid you'll have to settle for merely a recommendation. The sheer amount of other critical rave reviews practically forces me into a reluctant defensive position. Even though I'm giving a generally positive review, it still won't be "positive enough" for some.
I'll have to live with the hate mail because, frankly, I can't see how anyone could convince me that this is a great film. Yes, it's certainly about a great orator and important historical figure, and undeniably has a mesmerizingly fiery, podium-pounding central performance, but that's not enough alone to make the sometimes wildly uneven Selma a movie as epic as the people and crisis it represents.
©2015 Vince Leo