MOVIE REVIEW: Selma
"SELMA"-- 5 STARS
Now in 2015, we live in a world of infinite information where we can find out specific and factual details, primary source documentation, and true accounts on just about any historical event, especially those in the last century during the era of widespread print journalism, radio, and television. Thanks to modern technology then and now, we can hear real historical figures and see them with our own eyes because the generations of their time documented them for lasting effect. We don't know what the Gettysburg Address sounded like or looked like, but we can hear every word of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and see it with the speed of Google and YouTube. Thanks to documentation, there are no tall tales like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln anymore. Legacies match what was captured and preserved and they last forever.
Even though we are lucky to live in that world of infinite information, one victim and target for that is the movie industry, where they are not so lucky. In a way, since so many people can research and see the saved and preserved actual events, films based on popular historical people and stories of the last century have a hard time being genuine or living up to the real history. More and more, people see through the dramatization, the look of actors different from the real people they are portraying, and the shortcuts being taken by films to massage, soften, slant, skew, amplify, boost, or show bias in the interpretation of a historical person or event. Even with careful, limiting taglines of "inspired by" or "based on" actual people or events, movies going in that direction are judged by historians, critics, and average people alike. They are going to get fact-checked for possible flaws and, for many, those creative liberties and modifications sour the experience.
In 2013, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" was a perfect example of this unlucky problem. Filled with parade of star cameos, the film tried to give you a guide to the Civil Rights Movement happening around the central Forrest Whitaker character and his family, which was "loosely" based on the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen. Taken on its own, the film is very compelling, dramatic, and stirring. The problem was the "loosely" part. Dig into research on the Eugene Allen story and one will find grossly different facts that end up negating the impact of many of the film's emotional and important peaks. The realization of that sours your investment and makes you question the ending entertainment value. By contrast, "12 Years a Slave," in the same year, did not have that problem and stayed predominantly true to its source material. Just look how differently those two films were received, judge, and, consequently, rewarded for their efforts.
Entertainment goals be damned, films based on or inspired by historical people and events simply need to get their history right. If the story and the people are compelling enough to be remembered decades after their impact, then filmmakers should not have to reach for the sugarcoating. The history and facts should sell themselves. If it needs a boost, then it doesn't deserve to be a movie. "Based on" should mean "honor the history" and not "unofficial name drop convention." "Inspired by" should mean "live up to the history" and not "changed to suit entertainment ratings."
"Selma," whose name echoes the history being told, is one of those films that gets history right, honors it, entertains you without sacrificing the real thing, and moves you to no end. Anchored by an amazing lead performance from David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Selma" has the ability to break and shatter the hardest of souls, thicken your pulse, and devour your tissue box. The experience is entirely worth all of that trouble. Best of all, it earns that emotion from you. Dare I say, "Selma" might be even better than last year's Best Picture winner "12 Years a Slave." That's the level of impact we're talking about.
A dual moment of tragedy and celebration sets the tone for "Selma," with the horrific 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama echoing into Dr. King receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Norway. After a White House meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to implore for improved voter rights in the post-segregation South, Dr. King is at the height of his power and influence within the American Civil Rights Movement. He is a world figure now that everyone looks towards. Johnson supports his cause, but is held back by the stress of the Vietnam War and the divisive political entangles that the wake of the Civil Rights Movement have created. Martin knows he needs a larger stage for this cause.
With that in mind, Dr. King's attention is drawn to Selma, Alabama, the epicenter of the racial struggle for the voter registration issue. In towns such as Selma, only 1-3% of the eligible black population has been able to register to vote. Most are turned away by loopholes and biased Jim Crow laws that weren't stamped out by the Civil Rights Act of 1963. Without that unhindered basic Constitutional right, these citizens cannot fully claim and have their voice in the way the government is run, from top to bottom, from elected officials all the way to courtroom juries of their peers.
King's inner circle of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference soon organizes and joins local religious leader Rev. James Bevel (played by recording artist Common), his own organizer Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson of "Dear White People"), and the existing grassroots Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led by John Lewis (Stephan James of "When the Games Stands Tall). Martin knows that where he goes media and government agencies follow. With the right protest and the right demonstration, the issue and struggle could gain the kind of national attention and pressure necessary to force better and more complete action from President Johnson. The plan is to march peacefully from Selma to the steps of the state capital building in Montgomery, a 54-mile trip through dangerously bigoted rural Alabama. Opposing the movement and the attempt to march and register are the local county authorities, the state police, and the political clout of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) based in Montgomery.
Beyond the important history on display, "Selma" dives deep into the man behind the leadership. The film shows us Martin Luther King, Jr., the man and the husband behind the speeches and sermons. British actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo wear the burdensome pressure, emotions, dignity, and strength of Martin and his wife Corretta masterfully and beautifully. We are privy to their challenges more than their luster as a power couple that everyone looked up to. Their motivations and fears are fully on display and matched with a strong dedication and inspiring resolve. Both actors are triumphantly deserving of the Oscar attention for which they are being highlighted.
Phenomenal doesn't begin to cover their work. Equally good is the deep ensemble behind Oyelowo and Ejogo. Oprah Winfrey, like her or love her, is one of the film's producers (as well as Brad Pitt, who also produced "12 Years a Slave" last year). She, Tessa Thompson, and Lorraine Toussaint have key female roles as Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash, and Amelia Boynton, respectively. Common as James Bevel, Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, Henry G. Sanders as Cager Lee, and Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy all offer strong support as helpful guides to Dr. King. Their efforts show that you don't need big stars to carry clout and weight in a historical epic. They're here for the importance, not the popularity contest.
The recreations of the violence and the confrontations are jarring and difficult to watch, even through the PG-13 filter. Few punches are pulled, yet the tone is gentle and inspiring without overcooked theatrics. On the technical side, give credit to cinematographer Bradford Young and jazz pianist Jason Moran for making that happen with an artful reliance on lamplight, natural themes, and a minimally invasive musical score. "Selma" rightly avoids being combative in reflecting on the wrongs of those times in a fashion superior to last year's "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which twisted too much fact. Brilliantly, it is as if the film seeks to be as nonviolent and thoughtfully aware of its ability with words and images to match its historical leader. Female director Ava DuVernay, an honoree at the Sundance Film Festival three years ago for "Middle of Nowhere," assembles all of these components smartly and astutely. You would never guess this is just her third feature film.
Placed in our own present-day, "Selma" feels tremendously topical and timely to compare to the protests we have been seeing the last few years and months in Florida, Missouri, New York, and across the country. As fate would have it, this film has perfect timing to inspire its audience. Of all of the films of 2014, "Selma" delivers the impactful storytelling and messages worthy of the history it is portraying. It is easily the best historical epic of the year and rivals those of recent memory, including, as aforementioned, "12 Years a Slave." "Selma" showcases indomitable courage and earns your inspiration and reflection as one of the finest films of the year.
LESSON #1: THE POWER AND VALUE OF NONVIOLENT PROTEST-- The pillar of Dr. King's methodology in leading the Civil Rights Movement is a life lesson of chief importance. The same Bible that says "an eye for an eye" also says to "turn the other cheek." King knew he could affect more change and gain more influence with peace, compromise, pacifism, and civil disobedience than trading violence for more violence. Such is an important practice that is too often forgotten or abandoned. There is a time to fight and a time to talk. There is a time to rise and a time to pause. King knew those notes to hit and the marches in Selma were one of his grandest examples. The hashtag movements and group organizations today are trying their best to keep things nonviolent, and rightfully so, amid a gap that still remains between racial equality in this country.
LESSON #2: THE WEIGHT AND BURDEN OF LEADERSHIP-- As previously stated, the film "Selma" offers a dramatic and dynamic look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all of his layers as a man, pastor, leader, friend, father, and husband. He was fully aware that his decisions and actions carried responsibility and consequences, not just among the public but all the way to his immediate family. People looked up to him, young and old, educated and uneducated, religious and nonreligious. We see a man aware of his influence and the equal amounts of endearment and endangerment that it caused. At the same time, we see the motivation he needed to stay strong against those fears. We see the dedication to his cause and his message and the thankfulness he carried to those who supported him. All of that is equivalent to the classic weight and burden of leadership as both a symbol and as a man.
LESSON #3: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RIGHT TO VOTE-- After you learn about and watch this recreation of the efforts from "Selma," you should have a renewed spirit towards the importance that is the right to vote in this country. King and the other Civil Rights leaders knew that voting was the first and most basic expression of a citizen's opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Without being a registered voter, they couldn't select their leaders, exercise their rights, or participate in juries in court to represent their peers. Voting is your direct voice and people don't know what they have unless they didn't have it before. We should be appalled and disgusted that more people vote for the winner of "American Idol" in this country than for the Presidency and other government positions. Rights such as this should be priorities and "Selma" is a history lesson to remind us of that.