Sunday, February 8, 2015
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Keith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Jeremy Strong
Running Time: 127 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
One of the biggest obstacles in bringing any part of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life to the screen is that there's simply no guidepost other than history itself. Despite or maybe because of his monumental importance and cultural significance, we can't point to any contemporary film that's attempted to give us a thorough treatment of the man or what he stood for and few actors have tackled the role on a grand scale, which is probably for the best since it's a no-win situation. With Selma, director Ava DuVernay attempts what probably shouldn't be done, but takes the wisest route possible by zeroing in on a specific point in King's life to tell a larger story. One that's shamefully ingrained into the fabric of this country whether we like it or not.
There's an even bigger challenge in not turning the story into a history lesson or homework assignment that checks the boxes on certain key events with which we're already familiar. DuVernay manages to walk this line very well, taking a magnifying glass to the ins and outs of the civil rights movement while weaving it into a compelling narrative that should hold viewers' interest for the entire running length. But the strongest reason to see it is David Oyelowo's controversially un-nominated performance as King. The big surprise is watching him bring to life this man in such a way that it feels as if we're being exposed to his life and ideologies for the first time, experiencing the weight of his impact with fresh eyes. That's the real draw here. If there's anything the film will be remembered for years down the line, aside from the silly, fabricated "controversy" surrounding its accuracy, it's his restrained, thoughtful interpretation of King.
It's 1964 and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) has just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, even as discrimination and racism continue to rip the country apart. The previous year four young girls were killed in a white supremacist bombing of an African-American church in Bimingham, Alabama, escalating racial tensions to an all-time high as blacks are continually denied the right to vote. When Southern Christian Leadership Conference President King meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in an attempt to obtain federal legislation that would allow black citizens such as Annie Lee Cooper (a powerfully subdued Oprah Winfrey) to register without restriction, he discovers the passage of such a bill is at the bottom of Johnson's political priority list.
Upon arriving in Selma with SCLC activists, King's met with even more resistance by Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), with local law enforcement and state troopers responding to their nonviolent protests by injuring and in some cases killing protesters.This prompts King's idea for the Selma to Montgomery march, his seemingly last ditch effort to defy segregation and get through to the lawmakers. Drawing thousands of both blacks and whites from around the country, it's a dangerous but necessary move, putting these activists lives at risks, as well as King and his family's safety.
This is a difficult watch for a number of reasons that are completely unrelated to an allegedly controversial depiction of President Johnson. You'd figure that in a film covering a jaw-droppingly repulsive period in the nation's history, we'd be left more shaken by the recreation of those horrific events than preserving LBJ's legacy. It's especially comical when no one was ever previously concerned with doing that, or were even aware he had much of one to preserve. While he does come off terribly in the film, rejecting King's proposals at every turn until it politically benefits him to change course, there's little evidence suggesting those events didn't occur.
Whereas George Wallace is mostly painted a card-carrying racist, LBJ avoids that indignity, with Wilkinson playing him as an out-of-touch schemer who's eventually dragged kicking and screaming into signing the bill only after lives have been lost and he's politically humiliated. It's definitely not his finest hour, but we're kidding ourselves into thinking a President raked over the coals for his handling of Vietnam and even accused of conspiring in Kennedy's assassination was at all beloved prior to this film's release. He has his supporters and his reputation has unquestionably undergone a positive reevaluation of late, but DuVernay shouldn't be criticized for failing to portray him as a saint.
If maybe not King's nemesis, LBJ's clearly positioned as a major obstacle in blacks obtaining voting rights, and a stubborn one at that. Very much behind the curve while King is ahead of it, the movie's at its strongest when tensions reach a fever pitch and violence erupts. His non-violent sit-ins don't initially work and there seems to be much doubt as to whether they eventually will. The violent alternative is presented as Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who shares a brief but memorable scene opposite King's wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) that seems to exist solely for the purpose of King venting about it later (hint: he doesn't like him). The more interesting stories involve the individual protesters such as Winfrey's Annie Lee Cooper and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), SCLC members James Bevel (Common) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and young marcher Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), and white priest James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), whose eventual murders take this battle to a whole new level.
The picture of King in our minds is often that of a big, booming powerful force of nature so it would seem unlikely that the talented, but mostly unknown David Oyelowo would have the physical presence or charisma to pull that off. But just as we already decided how Daniel Day-Lewis should play Lincoln and what voice he should use before he actually did it, Oyelowo changes the conversation, challenging our preconceived notions of Dr. King. It's a really quiet performance but explosive when it needs to be, which makes all the sense in the world when considering his methods. There is a physical resemblance and he nails the speaking rhythms, but more importantly, he captures the determination, never blinking or wavering once in his plan despite the resistance that comes from even his most loyal supporters. The only time he lets his guard down and we see the fear and sadness is when there's a death or his family's threatened. Most of these displays of emotion occur in the scenes opposite his wife, as we see the toll it's taken on his marriage. Rumors of King's affairs are addressed before being quickly dropped, but they're never presented as anything more than that. If anything, the film even finds a way to at least partially blame Johnson for King's marital problems.
It seems as if we've entered a period where movies based on historical events are judged on their truthfulness and accuracy before anything else. This is a losing proposition since it's not only impossible to nail down every fact and conversation exactly how it happened, but it robs the filmmaker of creative license . And if it's about a touchy subject or contending for Oscar consideration, the nitpicking only intensifies. Taking all that into account, DuVernay does a great job under thankless circumstances, making logical decisions as to when she starts and stops the story. If she came in any sooner in King's life it could have been too much and if she stretched it out to include the assassination, it would just present an extra load of baggage to deal with. Just ask Spielberg, who couldn't even decide whether he was including Lincoln's assassination or not. At least DuVernay clearly commits to ending this at a concise point.
Selma is beautifully shot and superbly acted, but as awful as this statement seems, I have little desire to see it again. That's not a complete surprise given the difficult content, but it brings up an interesting question. How miserable is too miserable? While that reaction could easily be written off as the typical "white guilt" response, maybe there's some truth to it. Who of any race, gender or nationality wouldn't feel terrible watching this? And what ending, no matter how uplifting or inspirational, could possibly erase the image of blacks being beaten as gassed in the streets or that King is assassinated only a few short years later. Maybe there is an inherent liability in recreating historical events so closely in that it robs us the ability to "escape" through movies. Here, we're watching history skillfully reenacted on screen, as if it will ever provide some kind of restitution or explanation for what happened. And yes, it's true that films of this type are always released like clockwork around Oscar time. It's easy to respect what Selma does, but more difficult admitting it's something we want to see.