Selma is a film based on controversy while being surrounded by controversy. This is to be expected as everything in the U.S. can be boiled down to how racist something is. Selma takes this argument back to its roots.
By Robert Graves
You will recognize many civil rights heavy weights right away, and in fact the casting was well done. Martin Luther King Jr, Coretta Scott King, and Malcolm X were brilliantly cast. Unfortunately, a classic Hollywood problem reared its ugly head. There just aren’t enough well known African-American actors. Wendell Pierce is a great actor, but his casting is shoehorned. Common is there because, why not. I don’t even think he has any lines. Oprah shows up to deliver a few moving scenes. In fact, they are some of the best and highlight just exactly what was wrong in the South. Oprah’s voter registration failure, coupled with her frustration with her helplessness to do anything about it are essential to understanding the mindset of African-Americans during this time.
The pacing of the film struggles a bit at the start. There are two prologue scenes – one where Dr. King receives a Noble Peace Prize and two, where children die in a church bombing. Both scenes are important, but only the Noble Peace Prize scene moves the movie forward. In this scene, Dr. King shows his humanity by displaying his insecurities. It shows his relationship with Coretta Scott and introduces us to his power with his acceptance speech. Conversely, the church bombing takes us out of any realm of context until you see the explosion. The act of domestic terrorism meant to cause confusion actually helps to alleviate it, and ultimately disrupts the flow of the movie. As a solution, editing could have merged the two scenes together. The church exploding while Dr. King gives his speech would be a juxtaposition needed to show that while the world celebrates his work, there is still much to be done.
There is a lot of film to be watched in fact. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t a quick task, and the film takes liberties to abridge history. These shortcuts would normally lead to an unfollowable story, but Director Ava DuVernay finds clever ways to keep the audience on track. First, sequences are documented from two perspectives. A scene will happen from the King perspective, and will be synopsized by the FBI perspective – the latter is typed on screen as if you’re following a real time dossier. Its interesting to see the same scene in these opposing perspectives, particularly when you see just how off base the FBI was at times. Second happens in the main event – the Selma march to Montgomery. As the group crests the bridge out of Selma, voice over narration takes over, compliments of the ABC Journalist played by Dan Triandiflou.
While the Selma bridge sequence was my favorite of the film, there is no denying those classic Dr. King speech moments. There are several and seeing them on screen shows you how much of a super hero Doctor King really was. David Oyelowo delivers these already moving words with great force and character, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the real thing. Other characters are given smaller spot lights and provide poignant, if flowery dialogue.
Anything dealing with race is going to be a loud issue for those with mouthpieces. Selma is not exempt, and actually carries several camps of contention. The main argument I’ve seen is one from a point of accuracy. Lyndon Johnson was actually friends with Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King is portrayed as a feeble woman in the shadow of her husband. The Selma march went down a different street. The list goes on and on. Ultimately Selma is a Hollywood movie and a work of historical fiction for the sake of the audience. Selma, while moving, passionate, and informative, is not a documentary. Even attempting to harness these events into a 2 hour movie was a daunting task.
Ultimately, Selma achieves what it set out to accomplish. It is a passionate retelling of one of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history, and a story worthy of the late Doctor. This is not a film to be missed.