Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review - Selma

The image we're greeted with at the onset of Selma, staring directly at us, is the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But this is not the Dr. King we know from the sound bites and TV footage that immortalized him as a mighty orator with a famous dream. This Dr. King looks uncomfortable, restless and out of his element as he rehearses his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech in the privacy of his hotel suite.

The Dr. King he himself sees in the mirror is unfamiliar to him as well; All dressed up to accept an award for peace when he knows how much violence and struggle is yet to be endured in his campaign for civil rights. Just as he gazes at his reflection, contemplating how far he's come and how far he's still to go, so too does Selma hold a mirror up to modern America and ask its people to consider the same questions.
Director Ava DuVernay (working from her largely rewritten draft of an original script by Paul Webb) has no intention of taking the easy way around the story of the protest marches King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, or of dampering its echoes in the troubled racial politics of today. Though set in the summer of '65, it is a film very much about the here and now, told with a verve and vitality that historical docudramas often lack.

Rather than cut and paste every highlight from the pages of some textbook, DuVernay focuses solely on one single mission out of the dozens that King (David Oyelowo) took up in his 13 years of political activism: The right for black citizens to vote in the state of Alabama.

With tensions between the African American community and the Jim Crow South already at a fever pitch following the Civil Rights Act, King appeals to Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) for immediate voting reform legislation, but the harried president – understandably preoccupied with a costly war in Vietnam – considers it a lower priority.

This controversial depiction of Johnson has already sparked some dissent from LBJ supporters who resent that he comes off as anything less than saintly. However, Wilkinson's fine performance makes it clear that he's not the bad guy, but a shrewd pragmatist caught between a rock and a hard place, unwilling and unable to budge until one of those two sides does so first.
Perhaps those LBJ complaints would bear more weight if DuVernay hadn't applied the same scrutinizing humanism to King as well, who is by no means deified in this picture. DuVernay and Oyelowo are more interested in showing that even the greatest of men are as flawed as the rest of us.

Yes, King is a loving husband and father, but also an imperfect one. DuVernay evokes the marital rifts between him and his wife Coretta Scott-King (Carmen Ejogo) by editing their exchanges as a visual back-and-forth without showing both their faces together in the same shot.

Yes, King is a charismatic leader, but at times is doubtful about his own cause. As effective as Oyelowo is at channeling the hair-raising timber and cadence of King's voice, he's even more impressive when grappling silently with the human cost of his crusade.

It's easy for movies to play the old 'a-noble-cause-is-worth-dying-for' card, but this one truly and thoroughly explores that dilemma. One of Oyelowo's most affecting moments comes when King, locked in the Selma county jail, waxes philosophic to his fellow activist Ralph Abernathy: "A man stands up only to be struck down. And what of the people who followed him?"
But Selma never feels preachy – even when the reverend Dr. King is literally sermonizing – because the film is as much about the practicalities and politicking behind the Selma marches as it is about the ideologies that inspired them. The manipulation and tactics employed by all camps are portrayed, from blackmail to backroom negotiations to television exposure. In some ways it's reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, but nowhere near as reserved in its stylistic execution.

DuVernay's direction is never less than gripping, using beautifully composed images and carefully selected music to make some striking juxtapositions. The brutal assault of protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (the day that would be known as Bloody Sunday), for instance, is underscored by Martha Bass' rendition of "Walk With Me" to add ironic sting.

And rising cinematography star Bradford Young uses low angles to communicate power and moral standing in dynamic ways; Close-ups of bigoted Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) are framed differently than close-ups of King for a reason.
Because all this care has been taken to keep us engaged throughout, by the time the film reaches its epic finale on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, it's every bit as stirring as it aims to be despite being a predictable dramatic beat. And it's here where the parallels between past and present become pointedly clear, as sung in the truthful lyrics of the end credit single "Glory" (by John Legend and rap artist Common):

One son died, his spirit is revisitin' us
Truant livin' livin' in us, resistance is us
That's why Rosa sat on the bus
That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, "Stay down" and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

Selma is so much more than an engrossing history lesson on film. Selma is a rallying cry for a movement that must keep marching, and a glorious rallying cry at that. Selma is now.

***1/2 out of ****

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