Review: SELMA

Selma is a miracle. A historical picture for the here and now; shocking in its immediacy, unprecedented in its nuance, and demanding in its execution. Selma is the best film of 2014. 

Like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, Selma arrives with a commanding force of almost biblical proportions. It is a film so visceral and immediate it cannot help but stir up suppressed, deep-rooted emotions in this modern age of violence, strained race relations, and societal uncertainty. It serves as a reminder of where we come from, where we are, and how much further we have to go.  But the film is not force-fed brutality and grimness — instead, it’s a celebration of the human spirit and the people who gave their blood, and often their lives, for the promise of equality. Selma is the rare historical feature with blood pumping through its cinematic veins, providing a window into the very souls of its depicted leaders, showing not just their deified saintliness, but their characteristically human flaws as well. It is written and directed with precision, heart, and a genuine flair for true mastery of the craft. It is a film without equal, and undeniably the best film of 2014.

Selma tells the true story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s crusade to secure voting rights for black citizens in the deep south of the United States. The film depicts the battleground of Selma, Alabama where Jim Crow dominated and race relations were stretched to the breaking point. It is here that Dr. King and his associates orchestrated the march from Selma to Montgomery to pressure then sitting President Johnson to create and pass the legislation that would be come to known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma shows the political realities of the time, the pressure needed to enact change, and the horrific acts of violence that spurred the movement forward. One of Selma’s bravest attributes is its willingness to question the motivations of all involved, and thus its real life characters contain more nuance and pathos than any other biopic in recent memory. This is history alive, and pulsing with the beating heart of humanity.

Director Ava DuVernay opens Selma on a tight close-up of Dr. King’s (David Oyelowo) face as he wrestles with tying an ascot, along with his decision to wear such a thing. Image matters to Dr. King, for fear that he could be painted as an elitist out of touch with the realities of life for the average black person, or that he is masquerading as a privileged white. He always has to straddle the line between what his own community will think of him and what the white men in power will see him as, all the while asserting himself as leader of the movement. In the background his wife and fellow civil rights leader Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) provides comfort and spousal teasing, but there is doubt and tension lingering in the air.

From this opening scene it becomes clear that DuVernay has no intention of making this your movie-of-the-week celebratory biopic.  She is much more interested in what made this great man, and the movement, tick. Armed with Paul Webb’s tight screenplay, DuVernay punctuates the film with brutal violence, pointed commentary, and political gamesmanship in between the scenes of domestic uncertainty.  She keeps a laser-sharp focus while juggling all these components, never letting the film lose its tension or its momentum.  Selma is a lean beast of a film, constantly charging forward, all the while building up its emotion until it reaches its spiritual crescendo within its final few minutes. DuVernay’s approach is brave, yet measured and entirely sure of itself.  She guides Selma with a firm grasp on the material and a mastery of the craft of filmmaking. Very few directors can add their voice so decisively into their pictures, and with such authority.  It’s a masterclass in directing.

Equal to Selma’s success as a film to DuVernay’s directing are the performances by a cast with a keen understanding of their subjects.  David Oyelowo doesn’t much resemble Dr. King, but his authoritative presence and vocal cadences are spot on. Oyelowo’s performance isn’t a trick of mimicry, but a fully realized portrait.  He fills Dr. King with doubt, self-righteousness, kindness, manipulation, love, fear, and hope. It is a full transformation capturing not just the fiery oratory (which he tackles vivaciously) and worshipped image, but the flawed man underneath. Carmen Ejogo is affecting as King’s silently suffering, but strong-willed companion who gives Dr. King strength and bond of family. Oprah Winfrey makes a strong impression in her brief role as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman attempting to register to vote who later strikes a white sheriff (if Selma has one flaw, it’s that it abandons Cooper’s character after setting her up so beautifully and casting such a capable high profile actress to fill the role).

Tom Wilkinson’s performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson has many shades, demonstrating his complex relationship with Dr. King while also showcasing his shrewd intelligence as a politician and his southern racist roots. It’s a depiction that has drawn some controversy from those who would like to remember Johnson in a more positive light. But Selma doesn’t have time for pleasantries, and its warts-and-all approach is refreshing for its honesty.  Johnson was a great president who accomplished much during his time in the White House, and his work on civil rights remains a sterling accomplishment, but he was not perfect and his struggle to do what was right dictates much of Selma’s dramatic action.

On a craft level, Selma soars with dynamic cinematography from Bradford Young. Striking atmospheric lighting captures the mood and period feel, while the well framed close-ups from front and behind drop the viewer into the deeply felt private moments with uncomfortable clarity. The editing by Spencer Averick has a raw, intuitive quality that keeps you on edge while falling directly in line with DuVernay’s uncompromising vision.  And even its closing credits song, “Glory” by Common and John Legend, evokes strong emotion without being hokey or overly sentimental.

There is very little in this review in the way of negative criticism and that is because there is almost none to give. Selma is an overwhelming experience on a level that few other historical pictures can touch. It is about us — the human race, then and now.  It is a prayer for equality and understanding, and a condemnation of those who would stand in its way.  Selma is a masterpiece.

Grade: A+

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