Saturday, December 27, 2014

SELMA Soars With Still-Relevant Vitality

 SELMA Review:

- And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." 

I often think of this quote from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness when I think about the United States. Our popular mythology paints America as the greatest country in the world, a place where freedom reigns and opportunity is there for any to seize. Indeed, America is yea land of great promise and unlimited potential. But too often, we forget that our country was not born of innocence. America's story is not one of immaculate conception, but of a long and evolving struggle to overcome and move beyond the sins of our past. In just the last fifty years, America has struggled to overcome a shadow of racism, of bigotry, and of oppression - and echoes of that recent past still reverberate today. It's hard to watch SELMA and not think of the unrest that has gripped the country over the last year, in places like Ferguson. It's hard to watch SELMA and not think of how, only fifty years ago, large parts of the country were still segregated, and large swaths of its African-American population were actively being denied the right to vote. But it's also hard to watch SELMA and not come away from it oddly optimistic. America is imperfect - it was plagued by injustice and it is plagued by injustice. But in large part thanks to the efforts of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., America is a better place now than it was then. This is a country that, for all its faults, was and is a place where individuals can make a difference, regardless of who they are, or where they come from. This is a country that can change based on the will of the people, that is in a continual state of self-repair. This is a country that was and is, perpetually, moving forward. SELMA brilliantly captures a moment where America decided to move forward - to march towards progress in a way that could not be denied. The film is a moving, inspirational story that also happens to be a cinematic tour de force. Filled with phenomenal performances, and impeccably directed by Ava DuVernay, SELMA is one of the absolute must-see films to come out of 2014.

I was not at all familiar with DuVernay prior to seeing SELMA, but she makes a huge impression here. The film is just incredibly well-crafted. The narrative wisely avoids giving us a drawn-out MLK biopic, instead focusing entirely on the events surrounding the 1965 protest march that King and his supporters led in Selma, Alabama, with the goal of securing equal voting rights for African-Americans. Even though the film gives us only a snapshot of King's life, it's a snapshot that gives us a wide breadth of information about the man and what makes him tick. We see the sense of purpose that drives King forward, as well as the doubts that haunt him in his darker moments. We see the struggles in his marriage to his wife Coretta, and how the threat of exposing his infidelities is dangled in front of King by the FBI - should the need arise to take him down a peg. We see the delicate relationship between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson - who likes that King is a non-violent activist, but who is also in no rush to make sweeping legislative reforms while preoccupied with the budding conflict in Vietnam. The film tells us so much about MLK the person, even without telling his entire life story. Instead, it shows him preparing to mount his biggest and most politically volatile demonstration to that point, and shows us the moment in time when he became more than just an activist, but perhaps the single most important and influential figure in the entire country - maybe the world. 

DuVernay imbues the film with an intelligence that is refreshing and commendable. She doesn't shy away from getting into the weeds when it comes to the issues - but that attention to detail makes the film not only more credible, but all the more fascinating as well. SELMA really gives a thorough - and thoroughly engrossing - account of what the national political climate was like at the time of King's march. We see the march not just from King's vantage point, but from that of LBJ and his office, as well as from Alabama governor George Wallace - who was virulently anti-civil rights and anti-King. But the film is also sweeping and moving and emotional. Not because it's unnecessarily maudlin, but because it conveys in full the power and symbolism of the march, and what it meant for the people of Selma, Alabama, and the country as a whole. DuVernay displays a real sense for visual sweep, filling her film with chill-inducing shots of the march, of MLK's speeches, and of people coming together in support of his cause. There's also a real sense of horror in the film as well. Scenes of violent police brutality and murder are genuinely disturbing and scary. But they are necessary, in that they provide a visceral reminder of the kind of flagrant abuse-of-power that King and his cohorts were fighting to put an end to. 

David Oyelowo is just plain incredible as Martin Luther King. Oyelowo is an actor who has become a Hollywood mainstay in recent years, and one who's consistently turned in fine performances. But here, he raises the bar, big-time. This is great stuff - Oyelowo plays King as a flawed and weary warrior, a savvy political negotiator, and a skilled performer who knows how to crank up the gravitas when need be. In short, he (aided by a great script) at once makes King iconic, but also grounded and multidimensional.

The supporting cast here is also off-the-charts fantastic. The biggest standout to me is the great Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. He plays the former President as a cantankerous and stubborn pragmatist who, though not in any rush to appease King and his cause, still finds himself determined to come out on the right side of history. Watching Wilkinson's LBJ spar with Oyelowo's King and Tim Roth's smarmy George Wallace is one of the film's greatest pleasures. I also have to give credit where it's due, and mention that Oprah Winfrey absolutely kills it in a small but crucial part, playing Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma resident determined to vote, despite the state's efforts to prevent it. Carmen Ejogo is also quite good as Coretta Scott King - she has very justified tension with her husband, but also can't help but admire his drive for change, and remains a steadfast public supporter despite the issues in their private life. I also loved pretty much every actor playing the members of King's inner circle. Wendell Pierce as Reverend Hosea Wilson impresses, as does Colman Domingo as Rev. Ralph Abernathy - who delivers a soul-stirring monologue while sitting in a jail cell with King that is among the film's most memorable moments. Another of the film's best scenes involves Stephan James as a young John Lewis (who later went on to become - and still is - a long-serving US Rep), in which Lewis provides some much-needed motivation to King to help renew MLK's faith in their cause. Lewis was a leader of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a group of college-age activists who at times came into conflict with King's more measured approach to protest. Lewis uses King's own words to remind his mentor of the importance of their work, and the need to maintain hope that change is possible. It's a great, affecting moment that is another example of how the film humanizes King. It's not afraid to show the cracks that he sought to keep away from the public view.

SELMA is vital, important cinema - but it's also a fast-moving, gripping, wholly engaging and emotionally involving film. What I found really interesting about the film is that it dared to not just be the glossy, smoothed-over re-telling of this chapter in MLK's history. It shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly of the march on Selma. It showed King as a flawed but inspiring leader, and LBJ as politically-motivated to a fault, but also admirably independent when backed into a corner. It shows us an America that is fractured, hurting, bloodied - but also an America that has infinite potential and that can rise to the occasion just when things look bleakest. The brilliance of SELMA is that by showing us these people - and this country - without mythologizing or pulling punches, it in turns becomes that much more inspiring as a film and as a slice of our shared history. We can do better. The film urges us to hear that message - and does so perhaps even with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. "Look what we can do," it pleads, even as it evokes the likes of Ferguson and other modern parallels to the events of fifty years ago. The film doesn't just present the events of Selma as an over-and-done chapter of our history. Instead, it presents them as a living reminder of the work still left to do.

My Grade: A

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