The first months of each year are an incredibly rough patch, theatrically-speaking. During January and February, studios habitually release films that they’re less certain of in order to not have them buried beneath the avalanche of Summer blockbusters or the rush of Fall Oscar bait. And yet, as we begin 2015, we are graced with a pair of strong films: Selma and American Sniper. These films are about two very different, very real struggles – one foreign and one domestic – but with a similar eye for the toll that they take on the men involved.
On the surface, Selma is about Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for equal voting rights and his subsequent march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. However, like 2012’s Lincoln before it, the film delves so much deeper than that, giving us a glimpse into Dr. King’s personal life as well as making this microcosm of his work so much more alive and vibrant than what’s portrayed in the history books; sometimes breathtakingly so. Without giving much (or anything) away, I will say that the film’s opening moments are shocking, even terrifying; and with them, Selma simultaneously discards the usual quaint opening of most biopics but also makes the immensity of King’s struggle crystal clear and instills a sense of dread that lingers for the next two hours. It’s a credit to screenwriter Paul Webb (with this, his first major project) that the film doesn’t pander to its audience with a lengthy who’s-who or even much outside context. Viewers are simply expected to either be familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, or be willing to keep up, and any discussions that the characters have in regards to related events come up organically rather than feeling like lists inserted to spoon feed the viewers information. That said, Selma is somewhat contradictory in that it closes with a “where are they now” series of shots with accompanying text, a few of which involve individuals either underdeveloped or entirely unmentioned before that point. Also, while I’m sure that Selma may be more painstakingly detailed than I realize, it does periodically feel too cyclical, with King and his movement hitting the same governmental and procedural walls again and again; realistic, certainly, but a tad too drawn out for a film in my opinion. I also can’t help but wonder if Selma doesn’t toe the same line as Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom in that it’s written with the proverbial 20/20 vision of hindsight, with a clear agenda in mind, and can structure itself accordingly. That is to say that some of the main white characters – Tom Wilkinson’s role as President Lyndon B. Johnson in particular – seem almost unrealistically obstinate or ignorant when faced with King’s smoothly written voice of reason. Still, I’m willing to defer to the minds behind the film in this case, trusting that they’ve done their homework.
From a performance standpoint, my hat is off to leading man David Oyelowo. While Martin Luther King is often presented as a nearly Christ-like figure of goodness and tolerance in our history books, Oyelowo brings undeniable humanity to the role. His King is intensely human; torn between his family, his safety, and the demands of his morality, and struggling to not waver in the face of something so daunting. To use the Christ-metaphor again, Oyelowo presents us a Martin Luther King deep in the Garden of Gethsemane, about to undergo his greatest crucible. If anything, Oyelowo’s biggest issue in Selma may be that he’s setting the bar too high for himself for the foreseeable future. The rest of the ensemble cast (which includes an overwhelming number of Brits – Oyelowo included – for such an inherently American tale) all play their parts nicely, even if they’re sometimes underwritten. Kudos should also go to director Ava DuVernay (a long time publicist and fairly recent director whose most prominent work up to this point is an episode of Scandal) who guides Selma with a sure hand while giving her cast room to work with the material.
Selma can, at times, be difficult to watch with its unflinching portrayal of the events leading to the march to Montgomery. There are moments of criminal brutality and grave injustice, but also extraordinary humanity and undeniable hope. With an attention-grabbing leading man, a strong supporting cast, and a confident director, Selma is a must-see in 2015. [8.5/10]