Review: "Selma" Shows Viewers the Past and Present

Synopsis (Paramount):  SELMA is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.  The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.  Director Ava DuVernay’s SELMA tells the story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.

Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, with Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey as “Annie Lee Cooper.”

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Written by Paul Webb

Produced by Christian Colson,  Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey

Executive Producers Cameron McCracken, Nik Bower, Diarmuid McKeown, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Nan Morales

My opinions: If there’s one movie the Academy voters should be ashamed of sleeping on, it’s Selma. Out of the batch of films up there, including Boyhood, I don’t think any of them are better than Selma. Or, to phrase it this way, I don’t think any of them are saying anything as important as Selma. Yeah, there are some biopics in the mix, but Selma has something more going for it than just the biopic/historical element. It’s living history.

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The issues and frankly, the imagery from Selma matches everything we’ve seen from 2014’s Ferguson, MO. People in the Edmund Pettus Bridge got tear gassed and attacked in a similar fashion to those who marched up to the police after Michael Brown was killed. Speaking of Michael Brown, one of the secondary characters in the film, Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) was shot at point blank range by police in front of his mom and grandpa, which evokes many of the killings of unarmed black men and boys by police, like Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the dozens (probably hundreds) of men killed by police that go unnoticed by society and unrecorded by official police records. We have no telling of the actual number of Jimmie Lees get killed every year; if we did, there’d be even more outrage than there is now (and for some folks out there, even this amount of outrage is too much for them to handle).

The movie doesn’t oversell the horrifying images — it’s not trying to shock you into feeling sympathy or turn history into torture porn. But the way the film does address the horrors — with an almost unbiased, passive, semi-journalist sensibility — really puts the actual fear, anger, shock and death into context. The events are given life, and it’s this way that the film engages the viewer and makes them literally gasp out loud. That’s what happened during my screening of the film; everyone around me, including my sister and myself, were groaning, gasping, exhaling “Oh no!”, and in general stress at the events that were taking place in front of our eyes. My sister and I said to each other as we drove back home, “If the movie was this tough, imagine how hard it must have been to actually live through this!”

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Everyone in this film did a fantastic job with their roles. David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo both embody Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, even if Oyelowo doesn’t look a lot like the real life King. Ejogo, on the other hand, almost looks like a spitting image of Coretta back in the day, especially when she puts on Coretta’s classic cat-eye sunglasses. She also embodies her dignity and grace under extreme duress.

Oyelowo truly does delve deep into Martin Luther King the Man and not the legend. We see that he has flaws, too, including the not-often-mentioned dalliances with other women and his own doubts about himself, his leadership, and the mission at hand. In one scene, when King is sitting on a porch in Selma, weary enough from his self-inflicted marital woes and feelings from guilt after yet another person died under his watch, you see his head hang down, giving a literal interpretation of the phrase, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

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Other standouts include Stephan James, who played a young John Lewis in his SNCC days. I have interviewed Congressman Lewis for The Miami New Times, and I have to say that not only was he fun to talk to, but he’s extremely insightful and has such a wealth of knowledge about the fight for civil rights (I guess he should, shouldn’t he?). I would love to know what he thought of James’ portrayal of him. We do have his thoughts of what he thought of the film overall, particularly the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). I have to say that from what I’ve seen of young John Lewis from filmreels, James channeled the energy Lewis had (and still has) for change.

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Stanfield’s portrayal of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the portrayals of his mom and grandfather by Charity Jordan and Henry G. Sanders, respectively, have stayed with me since the end of the movie. To go back to what I wrote above, seeing an unarmed black man gunned down simply because he existed is something that should anger all of us. You don’t have to be black to be angry about black death, and that’s something that a lot of people are only now just waking up to. Oyelowo’s King said it himself as he was giving Jackson’s eulogy; it’s not just a “negro” issue or a regional issue, it’s an American issue, and if you’re an American and you’re not mad about unarmed black men getting killed, then you’ll need to grow up and get out of your circle, because it’s ideology like that that’s killing all of us, not just black people.

Other ideology that’s ruining America that was thankfully also touched on the film is the idea that whiteness equals birthright. In his speech at the Alabama capital steps in Montgomery, King talks about how the evil idea of white birthright keeps racism alive, and how, as he said, rich affluent whites were able to sell the idea of whiteness to poor whites instead of creating jobs and opportunities for them. With this idea, even poor white people could feel better about themselves and tell their children that even though they didn’t have anything, they were still better than black people.

This part really is what America doesn’t like to talk about and what many people will be quick to tell you isn’t true. But if you’ve gotten out of the bubble, you’ll see there’s a lot of truth to it. That this is addressed in a mainstream film is amazing to me and for that reason alone this film should have been nominated for more Oscars.

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Other elements addressed included King having to deal with being thought of as a “respectable” black man as opposed to Malcolm X’s “militant” ways, and King having to deal with such a descriptor. It’s alluded in the film that he used it to his advantage, like meeting with President Johnson—something Malcolm X couldn’t do with his pre-Mecca ideology— but also rebelled against, such as his many marches and arrests. Even the then-governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was shown for what he is, which is not just a willing participant in racism, but the worst type of opportunistic politician, switching from his campaign for the poor to overt racist policies just to get elected.

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There are so  many moments I could write about, from Amelia Boyton (Lorraine Toussaint) coaching Coretta before she met with a post-Mecca Malcolm X by reminding her of the strength of the African ancestors who helped shape much of the world’s civilization, to Coretta taking Martin to task for his transgressions by reminding him of just how much she has to put up with on a daily basis. So much good stuff in this film.

As to why this film didn’t get nominated for more is beyond me. I know there’s that stuff out there about Paramount or the Selma team not putting out screeners, but that “reason” seems way too convenient. I’m not buying it.

Of course, I’m not saying that any of the biopics aren’t telling important stories. The life journeys of Stephen Hawking, Chris Kyle and Alan Turing are valuable in learning more about the real life people. But to say that Selma doesn’t deserve a spot among The Theory of Everything, American Sniper and The Imitation Game is ludicrous.

Also ludicrous is to say  it doesn’t deserve a spot alongside Boyhood, which is a fictional account being looked at as a biopic simply because it was filmed throughout a young boy’s life. If the film wasn’t filmed in such an extraordinary fashion, I doubt it’d be getting the kind of buzz it’s been getting. Basically, Selma could contend and should have contended with every other film nominated.

Overall, this film is fantastic and must be seen. Thankfully, the film has a life outside of the Oscars, what with it being shown to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren for free (which I’ll provide an update on in the next post). The film is important and it would behoove you to see it, whether or not it gets recognized by The Powers That Be.

EDIT: I just edited it a little to reflect that I know that yes, the film has been nominated for Best Picture. But what I was trying to get at is that the actors and director themselves should have been nominated along with the film.

Top picture: Background left to right: Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey plays James Orange, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds plays Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures and Pathé.

Picture credit: Paramount Pictures, Pathé, Harpo Films

  • A movie that should definitely be seen. If not just for the controversy surrounding it, but because the controversy that’s been taken over the U.S. for awhile now. Good review.

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