Classic Movie Review: Selma (2014)

Posted: January 23, 2015 in Drama
Tags: ,

"Selma" Cast And Director Commemorate The Life Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After a church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, and after voter registration problems persist in Selma, Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is brought in to lead peaceful protests in Selma.  Bringing King into Selma alienates some in the Civil Rights movement, like James Forman (Trai Byers)  of the SNCC, who have been on the ground for two years dealing with voter registration issues in Selma. Others like John Lewis (Stephen James) were energized.  King is jailed for leading several protests.  He is released, and goes to a fundraiser in California.  While King is away, local black leaders plan a march.  The march ends in tragedy, as marcher Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is shot by an Alabama State trooper.

King plans a march as a response to the growing violence.  He prods President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass voting rights legislation, but Johnson is more interested in passing his Great Society programs to ease poverty than pushing for more Civil Rights legislation.  Still, Johnson urges King not to stage any more marches.  King plans to join a march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the second day of the march, but the march turns violent as troopers use billy clubs and tear gas to disperse the crowd.  John Lewis is severely beaten during the march.  Disturbed by the violence, King plans a second march urging white clergy, and other concerned whites to join him.  When troopers let King pass through the bridge, King confounds and angers many in the civil rights community by stopping on the bridge, and not going through with the whole march.  Does King ever march from Selma to Montgomery?  Does LBJ pass the Voting Rights Act?

There have been several high profile movies set in the civil rights era recently and the question was would Hollywood ever make a civil rights movie worth watching?  The answer up to now with The Help and The Butler was a resounding no.  The answer with Selma is a resounding yes.  It focusses the plot on the Voting Rights Act and the violence surrounding Selma in 1965, like “Bloody Sunday” and it does an excellent job of documenting that.  It goes further, it exposes the fissures between the SNCC and the SCLC, and some of the rivalry between King and Malcom X.  There was a conversation between King and Ralph Abernathy in the movie in prison, where King is saying in essence what good is civil rights without education, a job etc, which I think illustrated King’s mindset perfectly, he was interested in much more than just civil rights.  Finally, it briefly discusses King’s infidelity, to give a fuller picture of the man.  To its credit, the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in this movie is much more complex and more human than I ever thought it would be, and that adds to the movie’s credibility for me.

Where the movie gets a little simplistic is its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, I understand that every movie needs a protagonist and antagonist, but I think putting LBJ in the role of antagonist is a stretch, because at the time the movie was set, Johnson had already passed the Civil Rights Act at great political cost to himself, and with his legislative background in the Senate LBJ as President was uniquely positioned to arm twist and pass major legislation, I think this movie misses that aspect of LBJ’s legacy completely.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were both momentous pieces of legislation and LBJ passed them both within two years.  That is an incredible legislative record for any President.  Was he prodded by King?  Probably.  Did King want legislation passed faster?  Probably  Black people were dying on the streets of Selma, and Birmingham daily.  That doesn’t take away from the President’s accomplishment.

I was also glad to see the white involvement in the Selma march illustrated, because most movies like this become about African Americans versus angry southern whites, whereas the truth was whites of good conscience played an important role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

The acting varies greatly David Oyelowo does a fantastic job as King and should have been nominated for an Oscar.  He gets the voice perfect, the cadence perfect, he gives a pitch perfect performance as Martin Luther King Jr.  Carmen Egojo another Brit, does a very good job in a difficult role as Coretta Scott King.  She has to be supportive of her husband because of what he’s trying to achieve, but she is angry about his philandering.  Oprah Winfrey does nothing in the definition of a vanity role, she has two lines but manages to include herself in all the pivotal shots in the film.  It’s actually a distraction to the viewer.  I will say to her what I said to Brad Pitt when he made 12 Years A Slave, thanks for producing the film, but keep yourself out.  Tom Wilkinson does a so-so job as LBJ, he struggles mightily with the accent, and doesn’t really convey the essence of LBJ. Tim Roth, yet another British actor does a great job as Governor George Wallace.  There are many other good performances in the ensemble cast.

Director Anna  Duvernay does not sugarcoat the violence of the era at all, in fact one of her first shots engages the viewer right away, and reminds the viewer just how serious this time period is.  She also does a great job of framing and presenting MLK’s speeches.  It’s a very emotional film, the oratory, the unflinching violence  and soaring music capture the mood perfectly.

Selma:  A King-sized story, superbly told.

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