The Film: Selma
What’s It About? The life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is examined through the dramatic events surrounding the historic 1965 freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery. Determined to fight the injustice and discrimination that African Americans continue to face in southern states despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King chooses Selma as the starting point for the peaceful protest marches that will focus the world’s attention on the city and its response.
Number of Oscar Nominations: 2
Will It Win? It doesn’t stand a chance.
Okay, what the Hell, Oscars? How can a film be considered for the top prize of Best Picture without its director, writer or any of its cast also being nominated?
Strange goings-on in Hollywood, I am sure, left this worthy, well-made film about Martin Luther King at the back of the pack (Jesus, I almost wrote ‘at the back of the bus’). Anyway, it’s up for Best Picture but it won’t win. The song “Glory” is also up against tough competition. Selma will probably go home empty-handed.
There’s an odd meta moment in Selma, courtesy of a cameo by Martin Sheen as a judge. One of the film’s most important scenes is of the original Bloody Sunday on March 7th, 1965, when civil rights protesters attempted to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama only to be turned back and severely beaten by police, while white reporters looked on. The incident was televised across the world and probably did more to energise the Civil Rights movement among white people than anything that had come before.
The scene intercuts the violence on the bridge with a shot of one of those reporters on a payphone calling in his story, his voice breaking with emotion. Director Ava DuVernay must have watched Gandhi many times as the scene’s narrative seems to have been lifted from a similar moment in Richard Attenborough’s biopic, one where Sheen plays a reporter who witnesses a massacre in India, one that helped turn the tide against the British Empire. Attenborough was content, though, to film the scene in a fairly straightforward manner, while DuVernay chooses to get a bit arty with the direction and editing (slow-motion; steadicam shots; gospel music on the soundtrack).
The comparison with Gandhi is apt, though. Both films are about important historical figures who became political and spiritual leaders while preaching non-violence against their oppressors. Both films feature a powerful central performance. Both contain scenes of brutality that might prove difficult to watch. And both are earnest and worthy movies that provide a history lesson.
This is a well-made and for the most part very well-acted film. David Oyelowo has the difficult job of portraying a man who everyone has seen and heard countless times, and who is a near-mythical figure. Oyelewo captures King’s distinctive vocal rhythms and air of dignity, but he also does a very good job of humanising King, and the script is good at demonstrating that the Nobel Peace Prize winner was a fine preacher but was also as canny a politician as there ever was. This is not, thankfully, a hagiographic portrait, and besides, it focuses on the events at Selma rather than trying to cover all of King’s life. It is as much about the other civil rights leaders as it is about MLK.
As with fellow Best Picture nominee American Sniper, the film has been criticised for taking liberties with history, mostly around the uneasy relationship between MLK and LBJ. Dramatic license? Or a complete rewrite of the historical record? (LBJ never ordered wiretaps on King and his associates, as the film asserts; and the film believes that LBJ supported King’s movement to ensure that he ended up on the right side of history rather than out of any moral purpose). As is often the case with a film of this type, there are over-simplified moments and dialogue; this is a docudrama that errs on the side of drama, perhaps because the facts are too bizarre and barbaric for a supposed civilised society.
The supporting cast is a mix of hits and misses. Carmen Ejogo is quietly effective as Coretta Scott King. The film’s opening scene is of the two of them preparing for the Nobel Prize ceremony, making it clear that script will focus on the domestic as much as on the public. It’s as much about the strain on the Kings’ marriage as anything else; there’s a brilliant scene when she visits him in jail to tell him that Malcolm X is in town, and King’s hatred of X is rooted not just in the militant leader’s dismissal of him as an Uncle Tom, but also in a strong suspicion that Coretta is a little bit smitten.
Tom Wilkinson plays Johnson with his usual bullying grumble, and his accent slips a bit. Dylan Baker is a slimy J. Edgar Hoover. Giovanni Ribisi – with a comb-over – is Johnson’s adviser Lee C. White. Tim Roth plays evil racist George Wallace with a swagger and a sneer. Andre Holland is a very effective Andrew Young. Wendell Pierce is an avuncular Rev. Hosea Williams (and as in The Wire, we get to see Bunk in a dressing gown!) Oprah Winfrey is a down-trodden Annie Lee Cooper.
Selma is an important film, especially following last summer’s events in Ferguson, Missouri (Ferguson is name-checked by Common in the film’s Oscar-nominated song; Common also has a part in the film). Apart from the occasional, unnecessary arty moment, DuVernay is content to direct in an unfussy style, but Selma is not a subtle film. Then again, the 1960s in the United States don’t appear to have been very subtle times. The absence of Oyelewo’s name from the list of Best Actor nominees is most definitely a snub, and I was also disappointed that Henry G. Sanders, who gives the film’s most emotional performance as a grief-stricken grandfather, was not nominated.
I am not entirely sure that Selma deserves a Best Picture nomination, but then neither do American Sniper and The Imitation Game.
Verdict: Four Billy-Clubs out of Five