It’s astonishing to think that Malcolm X, whether justly or unjustly perceived as a radical black leader, made it to the big screen before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pacifist crusader. As did Spike Lee struggle to get Malcolm X off the ground with financing, lead actor David Oyewole jumped through hoops to get this film completed, according to director Ava Duvernay. And a mere 46 years later, a chapter in the story of one of black America’s most prominent leaders is realized in Selma.
It’s too easy to describe Selma as an important film. The fact that it took over four decades for Hollywood to release a film about MLK (ironic, in light of the fact that as recently as 2000, some states had still not validated the MLK holiday); the fact that an African-American female directed the film, that Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt (who’s Plan B Productions also produced 12 Years A Slave) provided backing; that the cast is loaded with star power, including Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carmen Ejogo (portraying Coretta Scott King as she did in HBO’s superb Boycott), Lorraine Toussaint, Niecy Nash, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Dylan Baker, Common, and Martin Sheen make it a pretty important film. But that doesn’t absolve it from being a flawed film, a film that at times goes to great pains to portray itself as an “important” film.
The movie starts off with a heart-rending tragedy; four young girls casually descend into the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and are killed violently in a bombing. That gripping moment is depicting shockingly and boldly as slow motion images of the girls float through the frame in a maelstrom of debris. You get the impression that this film is going to be a visceral ride through the events of 1965 in the town of Selma. But it isn’t, not completely. The film loses it’s edge when it feels the need to slow down to deliver “important” speeches that weigh heavy when more succinct dialogue may have been just as effective, and I’m not talking about speeches from King’s pulpit. Ejogo as Coretta Scott King delivers a soliloquy that pounds you over the head with its “importance” as she confronts Martin about a possible infidelity; similarly, Stephan James as John Lewis gives a verbose speech during a car ride about how Martin’s eloquence galvanized the SNCC. While these moments provide the requisite drama and motivation necessary for a film of this nature (kudos to the filmmakers for showing a flawed hero), sometimes less does provide more.
Having said that, for every slow scene, for every moment the film starts to resemble a film student documentary, there are scenes that contain pure electricity. Witness the scene where King, along with the SCLC and Selma citizens descend upon the Selma courthouse to demand entry in order to register to vote. The silence of the scene renders it eerie, only to later be rent asunder by violence. And then there is the cornerstone scene of the film, where King and his fellow protesters attempt to march across the Edmund Pettis bridge from Selma to Montgomery. Ava Duvernay proves herself a masterful director by creating a truly hellish setting, a Dantean landscape shrouded by the fog of tear gas, a backdrop where brutal officers materialize on horseback and deliver crushing blows with whips and batons to innocent and fleeing protesters. I never would’ve imagined this event, which I’ve seen in archival footage in the singular documentary Eyes On The Prize, could be re-created with this level of vision.
The film doesn’t try to tie things up into neat little bows either. There are conflicts between the SCLC and the college students of SNCC. Alliances are forged that remain tenuous throughout the film. King’s shortcomings are put on display here, whether having to convince his wife that it’s not his voice on a recording of a sexual tryst; or his reticence on the eve of protest, where he needs to hear “the voice of God” within the confines of his kitchen of Gethsemane. Admittedly, some subplots could’ve used a little resolution, such as the appearance and quick dispatch of Malcolm X and the tension between Coretta and King.
As for Oyewole, he is made to casually resemble Dr. King; however, unlike Denzel’s Malcolm X, Oyewole does not nail Dr. King’s oratorial dexterity in terms of his speeches. He does capture King’s subtle southern drawl in passing, but moreso Oyewole capturess the power and the presence of King. I was a bit disappointed with his performance of the speeches and I wonder if the fact that the King estate did not give up the rights to King’s speeches had anything to do with it. No matter. Oyewole gives us a charismatic leader, but more importantly, we see a man, occasionally fraught with doubt, a man who requires a shoulder to lean on from time to time. Forget about his shortcomings, Oyewolo anchors the film and pulls it off over the two hours of running time. In terms of the star-studded cast, if there was a sour performance in the bunch, I sure missed it. Perhaps the slight-of-build Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace was a surprise. Perhaps a couple of the younger actors hit false notes occasionally. But Roth brings convincing menace to his role, as he usually does, and a couple actors in no way bring down the show.
I was provided a screener of Selma in order to write this review. I will be paying to see it in theaters tomorrow. If you’re wondering why I’m willing to pay to see something I’ve already seen for free, well, I guess I’ve hinted at the answer already; despite the problems with the film, despite the controversy about certain historical figures’ actual contributions or quotes in regards to the creation of the Voting Rights Act (which some provisions have been struck down by the Supreme Court as of 2013), this is a film that must be seen, not just because it’s important, but also because it’s good. 4/5 reels
P.S. Oprah Winfrey is one of the best actresses not working in film today.