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Review: Selma (2014)

Selma (2014)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay

Premise: A dramatization of the efforts by Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) to mount a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 in order to push for the Voting Rights Act.

What Works: Selma is a very smartly made film and the moviemakers approach history with both an understanding for the people and cultural forces at play and the needs of a compelling drama. Rather than telling a birth-to-death biographical story of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the story of Selma focuses on a single event, taking place over a three month period, and allows the characters to reveal themselves through it. This frees the filmmakers from having to compress a full life into a feature-length story and it allows them to dig into the characters and set up a very clear narrative that adheres to a recognizable dramatic structure. This in turn allows the viewer to settle into the movie without trying to comprehend a lifetime’s worth of characters and events. As a historical drama, the filmmakers of Selma do quite a bit right such as capturing the look and tone of the period through sets and costumes but the most important thing they are able to do is to free the story from a sense of inevitability. Whenever filmmakers take on a historical subject they run up against the viewer’s sense of history; it is difficult to imagine the past going any other way than it did, especially major historical events like the civil rights movement. Historical feature films sometimes suffer from a lack of drama or tension, not only because we already know the outcome, but because we perceive that outcome as inevitable. The filmmakers of Selma have restored the uncertainty of the moment and the possibility of failure into this historical event. That makes it much more dramatically satisfying and it highlights the heroism of those involved. A large part of the film’s success as a dramatization is due to its depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. Played terrifically by David Oyelowo, the film violates The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance rule and portrays the man instead of the legend. As seen in Selma, King is a fallible human being who had flaws and self-doubt but also had a sense of humor and enjoyed the comradery of his fellow activists. Selma also succeeds as a dramatization in the way that it connects local activism with national politics. The film demonstrates very effectively the way in which politics and activism are a form of theater and how that theatricality translates into social change. The calculated behavior of King and his allies may run counter to the gentile notion of the civil rights leader presented in a lot of high school history textbooks, but it is also much more honest.

What Doesn’t: The one shortcoming of Selma is its portrayal of racism, most obviously embodied by Selma Sheriff Jim Clark and by Alabama Governor George Wallace, played by Stan Houston and Tim Roth, respectively.  The actors do a fine job with their roles but the script does not allow them to be anything more than generic racists. There is a critical scene in which Lyndon Johnson meets with Wallace and the President asks the Governor why he is using police officers to violently suppress the marchers. Wallace never answers that question but neither does the movie. The portrayal of racism in Selma is appropriately brutal but it is also superficial and there is no exploration of the traditions and structures that buoy it. However, the story of Selma is ultimately about the struggles of civil rights activists against those racist forces and the use of peaceful protests to achieve a legislative win. This puts an examination of the roots of racism just outside of the frame that the filmmakers have established for their story. But had Selma included that kind of nuance this would be elevated from a good film and into a great one.

Bottom Line: Despite his importance to the culture, Martin Luther King, Jr. hasn’t been depicted very much in American movies. Selma is a very good picture that does justice to the man and his legacy while also telling a compelling story.

Episode: #525 (January 18, 2015)