I came to Ava DuVernay‘s Selma late, finally seeing it amid the flurry of chatter, Oscar buzz and controversy. What nominations will it get? How accurate is the story being depicted? How does the current police brutality crisis affect the movie? A lot of talk around the stuff websites will get clicks on, but almost none of the talk is about the movie itself. As it turns out, it’s a decently made film boosted by a terrific performance from David Oyelowo.
From a plot perspective, Selma is pretty much what you’d expect. Dr. King wants blacks to have an unencumbered right to vote, and President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and all the white folks down in Selma, Alabama don’t want that. So, he has to stage some protests and demonstrations, showing the rest of the country how mistreated the black population is on a national scale. There are some speeches, some protests, some extreme police brutality, and some praying.
Oyelowo delivers the speeches with gusto as only Dr. King could. Even if it’s a speech you’ve heard before, King’s words were so powerful you can’t help but be moved by them, and the Brit is more than up to the task. Then, there is the day-to-day King. He is still a dignified man, but you can see some of the cracks in his persona. The scenes where we really see this are with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and seeing an icon like that go through real marital issues is really moving. One scene, involving a phone message, is one of the most powerful moments in the film.
I think I felt that way because the movie is extremely message minded. I understand why. It is an important message that some people even today seem to not get. But at a certain point, when you are someone who agrees with what the movie is saying, you need to look for other things to grab hold of when they keep repeating it. King’s marriage I found really interesting. How does someone manage to be married to such a controversial, important icon who is risking his life daily? Oyelowo and Ejogo work extremely well together, and I would not mind seeing them as a couple in many other films.
The film, however, is not without its problems. Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace are comical villains. Whether or not history supports the comic nature of their depictions, it would have been nice to see the adversaries have some nuance. The black/white nature of the conflict here, if you pardon the pun, makes your message clear but hurts a more dynamic story.
Ava DuVernnay can build a moment. The police wailing on these unarmed, innocent people is shocking, disturbing, and impactful. The speech scenes make you feel like you are actually in the room. But in the quieter moments, DuVernnay either needs another editor or needs to learn to hold back.
For a simple dialogue scene between two people, she gets coverage from every angle you could possibly imagine. The angles break the 180 line, break eye lines, are dolly shots, tracking shots, people on the left side of the frame looking left, people on the left side of the frame looking right. Anything you can shoot, she does. Then, she feels the need to use every single angle she filmed in the final scene. A shot can never breathe. She’s always cutting to a new shot every five seconds, without any regards to space or reason, to the point I got lost in the scene. Not lost in the sense of being enraptured by it, but in that I didn’t know where anyone was in relation to one another and where they were looking. Sometimes a shot just needs time to register and make its impact.
My only other issue is a small one, and that is the use of really recognizable actors in extremely small parts. Seeing people like Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr., and such show up to say five or six lines is rather distracting. When the film is filled with terrific character actors like Colman Domingo, Wendell Pierce, and Henry G. Sanders, who is outstanding in his brief appearance, I do not see the need. It just pulls me out of the movie.
Despite these issues, the movie comes together. It is an important movie, for obvious reasons, and everyone should see it. I would have liked it to be a little tighter and not as, to use the term again, black and white, but the film manages to still leave an impact. Most of that is due to David Oyelowo. So, if you can try your best to avoid all the noise about this one, I think your time in the theater will be well spent.