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Sunday, January 25, 2015

An Everyman's Movie Review: Selma

I can't believe how good Selma actually is. I came in to the film thinking that is was going to be Oscar bait, and I came out of it understanding why people were so upset it wasn't nominated for more Academy Awards. While I don't think it should have dominated the nominations the way Birdman and Boyhood did, I do think it deserved more than just a Best Song and a Best Picture nod.

The two films I had stuck in my mind before watching the film was Lincoln and 12 Years A Slave. Both of them are films that were huge Oscar players once the nominations were announced and both were considered the best film of the year at this time in their respected release years. Both Lincoln and 12 Years A Slave are extremely boring and dull films that truly were Oscar bait and both were films I regretted watching. Both of those films seemed like they were more suited for an 8th grade civics class (with the latter actually becoming a part of a high school curriculum) than the most prestigious night in Hollywood.

Selma actually has much more in common with Lincoln than it does with 12 Years A Slave as both films are about an extremely famous civil rights activist doing what they can in order to get a difficult law passed. Both Selma and Lincoln focus on only a particular portion of this famous activist's life and it shows you how they get down and dirty in the trenches. However, where Selma rises above Lincoln is that it not only generates enough good will for its main character where you truly care about his actions and he's a person more than a caricature, but you're enthralled with the minutia of the movement as well.

Selma is the story of how Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (played wonderfully by character actor David Oyelowo) and his supporters as they protest in Alabama in order to secure voting rights for Blacks. The film starts off in 1965, after the Doctor had already helped President Lyndon B. Johnson pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Oslo, Norway accepting his Nobel Peace Prize. By doing this, the film establishes how successful MLK actually was in his efforts at this point so we don't question why he does what does for the rest of the film.

There's a scene very early on in the film where Dr. King is discussing his plan with a local protest group in Selma, Alabama. The local group is upset that MLK and his supporters are coming down there and stealing all of their thunder. Even worse, when he leaves soon after, they'll be the one that has to pick up the pieces of his mess. In a very thoughtful and precise speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explains why he's chosen this particular town of Selma and why his actions here will have a ripple effect for the entire country. It's a speech that shows you what a brilliant tactician the Doctor really was and how there was a lot more to this public figure than meets the eye.

There was a lot of things in the history books that you don't actually know about the Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. For example, Rosa Parks was not the first person who refused to sit on the back of the bus. In fact, there was a 15 year old girl named Claudette Colvin who rode the exact same buses that Parks rode and refused to give up her seat nine months before Parks did. However, because Colvin was an unwed pregnant girl who was considered "mouthy" whereas Rosa Parks looked like a saintly grandmother, Rosa Parks became the symbol for the movement. This was a smart and crafty idea by MLK and his team and Selma as a movie explores the crafty side of the Reverend.

When Grantland's Wesley Morris reviewed this film, he compared it to a war film, and I think that's an apt comparison. There is a lot of violence in Selma but it's violence doesn't feel cliche or reminiscent of other films that took place around this same time like Mississippi Burning or The Butler. By focusing so much on the movement itself and by having the film be about a public protest as well as showing us the behind-the-scenes stuff behind it, we get a sense of just what it was actually like to march in Alabama in the mid-1960's.

Selma also surprised me in the sense that it really only focused on one character- the Doctor himself. The film actually has a decently big cast with big named actors (to me) in it like Common, Wendell Pierce (Bunk from "The Wire"), Oprah Winfrey, Niecy Nash ("Reno: 911"), Trai Byers (Andre Lyon from "Empire"), and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, but there's only one character you really needed to know about. Usually, that works to the film's detriment as a presentation of characters you don't care about leads to a film you don't care about. That was one of my issues with American Sniper. However, it strangely worked in Selma. I think by focusing on the movement at large while giving these minor characters at least something to do or say without them having their "Oscar Moment" helped the larger picture (pun intended).

Outside of Martin Luther King Jr,, the other main character of importance is President Lyndon Baines Johnson played by the great Tom Wilkinson. Recently, the film has come under heavy scrutiny for its portrayal of LBJ as a former aide of his wrote an op ed piece in the Washington Post tearing Selma to shreds. While the veracity of those claims have come into question (because of course they have), I personally don't care. Selma is a fictional movie and LBJ's part helped create conflict and thus created a more enjoyable film. It is not a documentary nor is it an educational video for high school students. It is a work of fiction. Every single major Oscar player this year based upon a true story (American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, etc.) doesn't tell the entire truth. Nor should it. While I agree the 36th American president doesn't come across very well in the film, the man did some incredible work for the Civil Rights Movement including passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. True education will allow our society to distinguish between the actual president and Wilkinson's portrayal of him, and if people truly believe Selma's depiction of LBJ as 100% fact, then we have a much larger problem than how director Ava DuVernay shot a movie. A man is judged not by his thoughts, but by his actions and LBJ's actions in American history prove what a great supporter of the Civil Rights Movement he really was. Hell, Abraham Lincoln didn't truly believe that Blacks should have equal rights to Whites, but his actions say otherwise. So while I think it is fair to criticize how Lyndon Johnson was portrayed in Selma, but it doesn't take anything away from what a spectacular film Selma truly is.



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