Selma is the companion piece to American Sniper in terms of being a Rorschach test for America in early 2015. Those loving neat categories would place Selma on the left and American Sniper on the right, and might find some kind of balance there. This would miss the value of each film by a country mile.
Like American Sniper, Selma is, to some of us, a movie. It’s an important movie, and a good one—just not a great one. The Oscar snub business, always a fascinating topic, will be addressed in the next posting. This time, as with all films, I’m writing about the film as a film. (See the opening quote and the first paragraph of my writing on American Sniper–film-prof.com/2015/01/17/american-sniper/.)
Let’s jump first to Selma’s theme, which, along with the central performance, is the strongest part of the film and what grants it the majority of its emotional heft. It presents and ultimately celebrates a moment within a great moment in American history, when the rights of blacks to vote were at least legally guaranteed, one of several key steps forward in civil rights in the 1960s. Just addressing this topic with skill and artfulness is reason why this is an important film and one that should be seen by every adult in America.
Yet here is where this unassailable and respected element of the film finds its major problem area. It purports to show the history of a great man at one of his greatest moments, and we have no reason to believe that what we are shown about Dr. King is inaccurate. The brouhaha has been over the film’s treatment of President Johnson and his role in the Voting Rights Acts. For those who respect truth and think that films covering historical events should work extra hard to present as much truth as they can (like the author), this is a problem.
Director Ava DuVernay has been a bit defensive on the issue: “My response is that this is art. This is a movie. This is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.” This is disingenuous at best (especially since she has a history of directing documentaries). She’s tackling a highly charged moment in American history with real people with real reputations who did real things. It doesn’t diminish King to have LBJ treated more accurately, though the dramatic conflict between the two might not have been as easy to locate and represent. It’s a weakness of the script that it had to bend truth to find drama. (Among recent films, The Imitation Game also did the same thing, but the license taken there was less damaging to the film and to history.)
Actually, her depictions of J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace are less than convincing, and in some ways as stereotypical as previous generations’ representations of blacks in films. In fact, if one were committed to digging into the truth about Wallace and his perspectives, one would have to sharpen the representation to include an intelligent understanding of the state’s right/federal government tension of the time. But even an attempt to try to understand a state’s leader’s wrestling with the issue of states’ rights, for the sake of depth and truth, might trigger accusations of wanting to reinstate Dred Scott. Bottom line: it’s too easy to simplify, stereotype and unnecessarily throw figures under the bus to support a point that doesn’t need supporting. And that’s a weakness that unfortunately undermines the power and believability of the rest of the film.
Happily, the central performance by David Oyelowo as King is sublime. You can feel the weight of the responsibility King must have felt, as well as the bone-deep fatigue, both physically and emotionally. This holds the film together, and Oyelowo’s rhetoric soars nearly as high as those of King himself when he’s addressing the crowd. He well deserved an Oscar nomination, and should have been in Steve Carell’s “slot,” for those who think that way. (See the next posting on why he may not have received the nomination.)
There are other strong points. The sequence of the beatings following the first attempts at the march is fine filmmaking, combining music, editing and camerawork for a powerful and animated experience—a jolt of energy the film continually needed. On the more personal side, some of the intimate conversations between King and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) bring a humanity and tenderness that softens the legend and reminds us of the personal cost of his work. There is a fine scene of a particularly painful question asked of King by Coretta, and the inordinately lengthy time he takes to respond is one of the finest uses of quiet in any recent film.
The film is far too talky at times, and can feel more like a historical reenactment with people working to describe the situation to the viewer rather than living it in front of us. King was obviously brilliant and articulate, but too many times the conversations of him and others are expositional, working to inform us of actions and attitudes that we might have inferred from something more visual, like, say, action.
The presence of famous faces is also problematic, though some might fold it into their political and emotional experience of the film. But seeing Oprah, an institution herself, along with Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. can be distracting, especially when every key black part is played by actors generally unknown outside of the trade. It pops the viewer right out of the film to see these renowned figures. It may add some element of “See, these people support the message of this film,” but it subtracts from the viewer’s engagement in the film and the credibility of its images.
Director DuVernay is a little like Angelina Jolie, who is also a young filmmaker with talent still relatively new to helming a large-scale dramatic feature. The film, while generally well acted, is too didactic and slow, and has a few exaggerated stereotyped performances of historical figures. But this is a good film, especially from someone with a relatively short resume. More than that, it addresses a painful subject in our history that needs to be looked at and discussed far more than it has. In the world of film art, it is a minor film. In the world of films on historical figures and tragic historical situations, it’s an important entry and should be viewed, the LBJ misrepresentation notwithstanding, by every American adult.