Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Directed by Ava DuVernay.
2014. Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.
David Oyelowo
Tom Wilkinson
Carmen Ejogo
Tim Roth
Colman Domingo
Giovanni Ribisi
Andre Holland
Tessa Thompson
Wendell Pierce
Trai Byers
Stephan James
Martin Sheen
Stan Houston
Keith Stanfield
Oprah Winfrey
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Niecy Nash

Initially, I wanted to post this review on Monday since it was MLK day, after all. I actually ventured to the theater to see it on that day. I spent part of the day speaking with my kids about it and contemplating it, myself. Part of that contemplation was on the movie's place in contemporary society and if it truly is one of the year's best pictures as it's been nominated by the Academy. The rest of the day, I used to watch another movie. I managed to get my feelings down in writing on Tuesday and here I am presenting them to you. We may as well begin where the movie does.

By 1964, the Civil Rights Movement had been in full swing for quite some time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work within it which we've neatly summarized with the phrase non-violent resistance. In Alabama, a church is bombed killing four little girls and black citizens are denied the right to vote due to discriminatory practices. Dr. King asks President Lyndon B. Johnson for help in these matters. When he gets an unsatisfactory answer, he decides to head to the Alabaman town of Selma to lead demonstrations designed to get voting laws changed and/or enforced.

The biggest triumph of Selma is tied to its protagonist and the person portraying him. It effectively knocks him down from being an infallible myth to an actual human being without being disrespectful of or seeming to have something against him. This was a major problem, for instance, a couple years ago in the movie J. Edgar. Director Clint Eastwood's film felt like it was hell-bent on tearing its subject down because it simply didn't like him. It dragged the whole movie down a tawdry path. Here, that isn't the case. Selma director Ava DuVernay's respect for Dr. King comes through loud and clear. Still, she understands that he has faults and insecurities that must be dealt with.

To bring DuVernay's vision of Dr. King to life David Oyelowo does a masterful job with the role. He's an actor who, in the past, always struck me as too intense for his parts, lacking any subtlety. Dr. King is an iconic figure whom we have much video of delivering fiery speeches. The general population has been fed such a steady diet of these snippets they seem to make up the whole man. Playing such a person lends itself to an overzealous, scenery-chewing performance that never goes beyond physical impersonation. An actor already given to being bombastic in his approach seemed to be an ill fit. Thankfully, Oyelowo dials back his normal tendencies enough to let us sympathize and empathize with Dr. King rather than just trying to keep us in awe of him. As a result, the weight on his shoulders is palpable, as are his fears and hesitations.

Conversely, Selma falls down a bit in it's portrayal of Dr. King's wife Coretta (Ejogo) and the relationship between them. The movie wisely shows her as a woman who understands all that's going on around her, including knowledge of her husband's greatest flaw: infidelity. It's brought up and Dr. King acknowledges this by at least spending one day at home that he otherwise would not. However, there is no further mention of this problem, let alone any discussion of it. This does two things. First, it makes her seem complicit in his affairs because she's soon back to being the unquestionably devoted and supportive wife without her husband saying so much as sorry, even after his admission of guilt. Second, instead of taking the opportunity to further demystify King and empower Coretta, it uses their marital strife as nothing more than an excuse to ensure he is not present for a certain event. Carmen Ejogo does what she can with the role and nails her one shining moment, the "fog of death" speech. Unfortunately, the rest of it only shows her doing one of two things: being scared to answer the phone or smiling as she stands by her man.

All but one of the other characters are merely archetypes. They each serve a specific purpose rather than being true representations of historic figures. Ralph Abernathy (Domingo) lifts our hero's spirits when needed. Andrew Young (Holland) is the voice of reason. John Lewis (James) is the wide-eyed follower. James Forman (Byers) is the young nay-sayer. Gov. George Wallace (Roth) and Sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) are ruthless villains. The only other person escaping this fate is Pres. Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson. King included, he might be the only person in the movie with complex motivations. Wilkinson wears the agony this causes on his sleeve and it works wonderfully.

The remaining characters are here merely to be sacrificed. Whether or not that's actually their purpose within the Movement is debatable and something Dr. King wrestles with. However, that is undoubtedly their purpose in building sympathy and empathy in the audience. As it was in real life, it is both compelling and gut-wrenching theater to see defenseless people mercilessly beaten. This is where Selma gets its power. As interesting as Dr. King is, his plight and dilemmas would be rendered flat without the tangibility of those visuals. The cringes and shudders that come from watching them reaches in and drags out whatever decency resides within us.

Overall, it's an intriguing movie, an excellent one in fact, but it does drag in places. Most often this occurs when King and members of his organization are debating strategy. The problem stems from something I noticed earlier. Each character has a certain role to play and rarely veers from the path they've been set on. Therefore, each of these conversations play out in very similar fashion. After the first couple, they're just redundant. The real meat of the movie is what happens between those meetings and almost serve as breaks for the audience because we know, more or less, what's going to be said. Luckily, what happens between meetings is pretty powerful.

This brings me back to the question echoing through my head, first as I watched the movie and again as I am writing this review: is Selma one of the year's best pictures? More accurately, does it deserve its Oscar nomination for Best Picture? To the first question, I'll have to totally cop out. While I enjoyed the movie a great deal and I would put it among the best movies from 2014 that I've seen, I plan on watching anywhere from 60 to 80 more movies released during the same year. Check back with me a few months from now. The second question is trickier. I could give the same answer, but I want to take a crack at it. To some, it was only nominated because it is an "important" movie or as a preemptive strike by the Academy against charges of racism. There is validity to both opinions. However, in light of the movies traditionally, even recently, nominated for Best Picture, it's hardly an egregious inclusion. Like many others, it tackles major social issues and includes a healthy dose of tragedy to go with any triumph. By many, it is deemed important. Nearly every year the Academy nominates at least one, if not several movies fitting the same description. Just last year had 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club. 2013 gave us Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Amour. In 2012, there was The Help, War Horse, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I think Selma is better than several of these movies and none of them engendered near the backlash. Therefore, whether or not it will remain as one of my own personal top movies by the time I finish watching all those others, I'm fine with its nomination.

On the other hand, I would have been fine had it not been nominated. It is not an unquestionable masterpiece. However, I do feel its an "important" film. For my family and I, it served to flesh out a man that really became legend. More importantly, it helped give perspective to my children on their own freedoms and liberties and how they came to be. I've spoken with them about such things in the past, but what dad says and what they saw in the documentaries they had to watch in class is lent credence when it plays out in a big screen production. To us adults, that may sound ridiculous, as we understand that the greater artistic license afforded to the makers of such movies may lead to there being as much fiction as truth on the screen. However, what's important is that the film conveys the overriding feeling of the era and doesn't short-change what people had to go through to secure the same rights afforded to others simply on the basis of skin color.

Just to come full circle, I'll bring it back to awards once more. While I can see reasons why Selma was nominated and can see reasons why it should not have been, I do think it was snubbed in one place. I'm thoroughly impressed with the work turned in by David Oyelowo in the lead role. It's a difficult part to play, yet he did it confidently and thoroughly. He didn't spend much time trying to get all the mannerisms and vocal inflections of Dr. King down pat. Instead, he captured the spirit of the man. I'm sure a number of other actors could have come in and given us a better MLK impression. Oyelowo simply gave us MLK.


  1. Great review. I wanted to see this on Monday but my plans got changed. Maybe sometime this week or next. I have dropped my expectations after reading so many reviews.

    1. I do really enjoy it and it is a powerful film so please still check it out soon.

  2. Great review Dell! You touched many point on why I so appreciate this film. I like that it focuses on the pivotal march instead of MLK's life as a whole, and the fact that the film didn't portray Dr King as a saint. He has doubts like most people, he got discouraged and he also wasn't faithful to his wife. I totally agree that Oyelowo is snubbed big time as he's simply phenomenal as MLK. He's convincing in the powerful speeches as well as in the quieter moments where his inner turmoil's palpable. I think capturing the spirit of the character is far more important than simply doing a great impersonation of him. I hope to see more prominent roles from this fine actor.

    1. Thank you. Oyelowo is amazing in this movie. He truly brought King to life.

  3. Great review Wendell, and you raise a lot of valid points (especially with regards to Oyelowo), and I like the point about the redundancy in the meetings, because that was something I picked up on but didn't make the same connection to 'parts played' that you did. I thought Ejogo was great, despite the limited nature of her character.

    But yes, outside of King, it is only LBJ that feels 'whole'.