Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Review: "Selma"

Around the holidays, there is always at least one or two movies released which are either chronicles of an event or a time in history, or biographies of a notable historical figure or celebrity. And this year is no exception—the last month or so has seen the release of The Theory of Everything (about Stephen and Jane Hawking), The Imitation Game (about Alan Turing), and Ava DuVernay's fantastic Selma.

But while some commercials for Selma promote it as the story of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in actuality, the movie takes place over a short period of time in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has recently signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but many southern states in particular seem to be virtually ignoring it. In Alabama, for example, while African-Americans technically have the right to vote, white court clerks humiliate them and subject them to unfair harassment and testing that disqualifies them every time.

It's come to the point where King (David Oyelowo) and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have had enough. King asks Johnson for his help in ensuring that blacks have the right to vote by passing a Voting Rights Act, but Johnson isn't ready to do so—despite winning re-election in a landslide he feels an obligation to the leaders in many southern states who helped him win, and who don't support Johnson's movement toward equality. Johnson asks for time; King no longer has the patience to wait, especially as more violence is being perpetrated on blacks who simply want the rights they are entitled to.

Everything comes to a head in Selma, Alabama, as King and his colleagues plan a non-violent march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, where they hope to meet with Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), despite his outspoken prejudice. The first attempt to march is met with violence on the part of local and state police (all white, of course) and racist citizens, and this violence is broadcast nationwide by the media, so many people from all walks of life are motivated to come to Selma and join the march. King must decide whether to lead his supporters back into an environment which could be fraught with serious danger, while Johnson must decide whether to let events transpire as they are without his involvement, or if he should go against Wallace's wishes.

While I knew what the outcome of the march on Selma was, I didn't honestly know much more than that, so I found this movie suspenseful as well as mind-blowingly good. Some have pointed out some of the film's historical inaccuracies (for example, ignoring the role that the Rev. Ralph Abernathy played), but I don't feel this lessened the film's power in any way. This is a movie that is all too appropriate given recent events in Ferguson and New York, as well as the fight for marriage equality across the country, and it's frightening how prescient some of the dialogue is, much as it was in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln a few years back.

David Oyelowo, who impressed me last year with his role as Forest Whitaker's equality-crusading son in Lee Daniels' The Butler, absolutely took my breath away with his performance in this movie. He looks like King, has King's cadence, and his replicating some of King's most famous speeches and sermons gave me the chills. But alongside the big moments, Oyelowo shines in so many smaller moments in the movie as well. Selma doesn't paint King as flawless—it shows that this spiritual leader had his own struggles—and that is what makes Oyelowo's performance even richer. I knew just a few minutes into the movie, after his first speech, that this would be a career-making performance, and it is utterly Oscar-worthy.

Wilkinson does a terrific job with his portrayal of Johnson, as he straddles the line between what he knows he needs to do to ensure his legacy versus what he wants to do for political expediency, and he also depicts the struggle of a man in the midst of, as he puts it, "101 problems" coming at the same time. The supporting performances—including Roth, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (she is a dead ringer for the woman she portrays), Stephan James as John Lewis (now a U.S. Congressman), Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams, Colman Domingo as Abernathy, and Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton—more than hold their own against Oyelowo and Wilkinson. In my opinion, only Oprah Winfrey, in a small role, seemed out of place and felt more like acting than embodying a character.

Even if you know little to nothing about the civil rights movement, Selma is a movie to watch and to savor. Ava DuVernay films some scenes with the tension of an action movie, and not a moment feels forced or wrong-footed. You watch events unfold as the characters do and are moved by them. Definitely one of the best 2014 films I've seen.

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