As a moviegoer, Selma is my favorite kind of movie.
Selma is the kind of movie that makes you think. Selma is the kind of movie that makes you feel. Selma is the kind of movie that inspires you to do something, whatever is yours to do, to improve the lives of your fellow humans. I left the theater after watching Selma examining my own life, a life filled with acts of community service, yet I still found myself asking myself "What would I do?"
What would I do if I were standing on that bridge? Would I have the courage to stand up for my convictions? Would I be one of the hateful masses going along with it all out of fear? Would I allow myself to be influenced? Would I truly be willing to lay down everything I have and everything I am for what I believe?
I want to say "Yes, of course." Yet, I left Selma wondering.
Selma may not necessarily be the "best" film of 2014, yet it is most certainly one of the most inspiring, hopeful and important films of 2014. It tells the story of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, a march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against violent opposition in an effort to secure equal voting rights. The march, actually the third of three attempts to complete the march, was widely broadcast by the media and the violent, hate-filled images of Alabamans attacking the peaceful marchers became the catalyst that led to President Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a victory seen as one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.
Merely the presence of a central figure such as Dr. King may make it tempting to consider Selma a biopic. Rest assured, it's not a biopic. Selma is the story of a movement, a movement that may very well have had King as its central figure yet a movement that was filled with local, regional and national leaders whose lives were relentlessly devoted to an America lived up to its values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans. In many ways, Selma is a modest film that could have so easily ended up being in the shadow of another expected film from Spielberg himself. With Spielberg having secured the rights to the actual words of Dr. King, screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay were left to create the stories, the inspiration, and the essence of Dr. King and these other leaders in ways that reflect the truth and capture the spirit of these times.
They have succeeded.
There were those who expressed skepticism at the casting of British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. King. They needn't have worried nor been skeptical. While Oyelowo may not actually mimic King in his speech, he does an extraordinary job in his portrayal of projecting King's presence, his inspirational words, and his striking humanity. It is truly an exceptional performance and will most assuredly be recognized throughout awards season.
I will confess that I prefer Selma in King's quieter and more inter-relational moments, moments that don't always get the attention that they deserve. Yes, we are privvy to his epic oratory and quiet dignity in the face of hatred. These things are so closely related to King that it would be impossible to have the film without them, yet where DuVernay's film truly excels is in believably humanizing King in a way that makes him more accessible to us and, in turn, calls us deeper into his call-to-action.
The film's soaring oratorical scenes are powerful, yet there are times they ever so slightly disrupt the film's tonal consistency. While I'm somewhat convinced that King himself had a tendency to also do this very thing, as a moviegoer I found myself wanting to stay immersed in the film. I will stress, however, that this is a minor quibble for one of the year's best films.
Carmen Ejogo shines right alongside Oyelowo as Coretta Scott King, while Tim Roth gives one of his finest performances in recent years with a disciplined and understated turn as Alabama Governor George Wallace. Lorraine Toussaint is stellar as local organizer Amelia Boynton, Common is decidedly uncommonly good as James Bevel, and Giovanni Ribisi also turns in an understated, convincing performance as presidential adviser Lee C. White. Tom Wilkinson's turn as President Johnson comes closest to what could be called caricature, yet Wilkinson is far too gifted an actor to allow that to happen. Selma also features fine performances from Wendell Pierce as King lieutenant Rev. Hosea Williams, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Alessandro Nivola as John Doar, Andre Holland as Andrew Young, and a host of others including co-producer Oprah Winfrey's appearance as Annie Lee Cooper.
Bradford Young's lensing is creative, intimate and provocative, while Ruth E. Carter's costuming is period appropriate and the entire production design has a feeling of authenticity yet contemporary relevance. When I first heard a song that accompanies the film's closing credits by John Legend and Common, "Glory," I found it a little jarring with its appropriate yet contemporary references to Ferguson. Yet, it's important to consider that Selma isn't so much regarded as a historical film as it is a contemporary film that brings to life a historical event. The film, in essence, is a moving and powerful bridge from past to present and a chance to Americans to inspire us to continue moving forward and away from what Wendell Pierce himself called America's original sin when he spoke recently with The Independent Critic.
As I was preparing to write this review, I received an e-mail informing me that 27,000 New York City students would be seeing Selma for free thanks to the generosity of a group of the city's African-American business leaders. I nearly wept, because Selma is truly a film that must be seen by today's youth so that we can keep Selma and Ferguson from happening in the future.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic