I was very excited to see Selma ever since I saw the trailer for it. Originally I expected it to be a dry and boring biopic, but the trailer actually looked really good, and upon seeing the film I had a reaction similar to my response to Unbroken. it’s elevated by the filmmakers’ commitment and respect for the story they are telling. Then came the controversy over Ava DuVernay’s exclusion from the list of best director nominees and David Oyelowo’s from the best actors. I was particularly sensitive to these aspects while I was watching the film, but nevertheless the film still managed to reach me on some level. It is a very powerful film, but mostly due to the film’s content and the film making itself.
Selma focuses on the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) and the people of Selma, Alabama to secure voting rights for African Americans. Though they have the legal right to vote, they are prevented from exercising it by underhanded tactics like the poll tax and outright violence. President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has signed the Civil Rights Act into law and wants to focus on the issue of poverty, despite the insistence of Dr. King on working towards voting rights. Against the president’s wishes and the official position of the state of Alabama and Governor Wallace (Tim Roth), King organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery in peaceful protest. Being threatened and watched by the FBI, King’s marriage to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is threatened and King suffers second thoughts about his strategy for achieving equality. Though the movement receives tremendous support both from those inside and outside of Selma, the violence from those in power is seemingly inescapable.
The film is really strong in outlining King’s goals and showing the obstacles to them. His policy of nonviolence is clearly defined and shown throughout the film. While nonviolence immediately sounds like a beautiful philosophy, this film shows how it is very hard and requires violence on the part of those in power to achieve any change. It’s heartbreaking to see people whose only “crime” is wanting the basic rights guaranteed to them as Americans come under attack by the people who are supposed to defend those rights. It’s hard to watch, but the film makes it clear that that’s how nonviolence works; if those in power don’t attack, people will not notice the injustice that’s occurring. That’s what happened in the town they were in previous to their arrival in Selma. Innocents have to get hurt in order for the nonviolence thing to work, and that’s one of the many painful truths the movie makes clear.
A very strong point of this movie is the supporting players and the sense of community throughout the film. Though the film doesn’t shy away from showing infighting within the movement, it still manages to create a strong sense of community between the African Americans in Selma, the leaders of various groups, and the visitors who answer Dr. King’s radio summons to stand with the people of Selma. The film avoids making many of them into individuals, and I don’t mean this as a negative criticism, but as a good way to show solidarity (a believe a similar technique was used in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). Many of them are seen as individuals, but more importantly as part of a whole group. Some of the film’s most powerful scenes include people who are only in that one scene, whose names we may not know or remember but whose faces and words are unforgettable.
So I was paying careful attention to the direction and cinematography while watching this movie. Perhaps if I had seen a week ago before the whole nomination thing I wouldn’t have noticed all the drawbacks in these areas that I did, but I am certain I would have noticed the slow motion. I had heard vague things about the use of slow motion in this movie, and seeing the movie I have to say it is pretty manipulative, as slow motion generally is. Comparing the violence here to the violence in last year’s 12 Years a Slave is very telling. The violence in that movie is painfully and brutally shown in long takes you can’t look away from. It simply lets the injustice and pain of the situation tell the story. However, things are a little more manipulative here, with the slow motion. Maybe this is to get the PG 13 rating or maybe just because that’s just how DuVernay wanted the story told, but either way it doesn’t feel as powerful as something like 12 Years. That said, it’s not like this film didn’t accomplish what it wanted to. There are several heartbreaking scenes of violence in the film, even if they feel a bit manipulative. It’s not as egregious as I thought Fruitvale Station was, but it is there. Furthermore, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t been paying strict attention, the compositions in this film are sometimes very strange and I can’t think of why DuVerney or cinematographer Bradford Young would squish people into one tiny portion of the frame the way they did so frequently throughout the film. Perhaps there was a purpose and I just can’t see it, but it was something negative (in my view) I noticed about the direction. That said, I’m not sure why DuVernay was left off and Tyldum was put on (though I didn’t intensely concentration on the direction/cinematography in that film, I just didn’t notice anything especially innovative/interesting), and I still think Fincher did better than both of them, but perhaps I’m biased on that front. I also don’t want to take away from what the film does well, even though it’s not perfect I think overall it’s a very well crafted film that stumbles a few times.
The bottom line is that while Selma‘s story and topic make for a powerful film, I think this is more due to the content and less to do with the film making. That said, it still is a very powerful film, coming in a very timely manner. I understand why so many people are connecting with this film emotionally, and I connected with it as well. I just think it could have been a little bit better if the story was allowed to speak for itself more and the direction was more assured overall. I could be going too hard on this movie, but a film about such an important and worthy subject deserves to stand up to heavy criticism. I do think this is an important film that demands to be seen, if only for social reasons and not necessarily cinematic ones.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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