The Alan Turning biopic The Imitation Game may confront dark subjects with too much levity, but the film is such a ripping yarn, and a well told one at that, I deny the right to complain. It’s a biopic that dances between genres with a light foot, making it easy to share with different people of different types. There’s a focused artistry that doesn’t dare become pretentious, and, more than anything, it commands control on its subject so tightly you’re along for the fascinating ride. I bring up The Imitation Game because it’s the closest foil for Selma, the Ava DuVernay directed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) biopic, because it is none of the things that makes Turing’s film work.
Selma turns the clock back to 1965, where we meet Martin Luther King Jr. pleading to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilksonson) to enforce the legal right of African-Americans to vote. Most of the South is plagued by many of the racists that 2014’s headlines tell us sorrowfully linger. Exclusively white desk clerks refuse to let negroes (a term Selma has presidents, governors, and everyday folk use with uncomfortable ease) vote, and impose a beurocratic bullshit runaround that they cannot overcome. Ever the charismatic controller of racial relations, MLK ignites a sitting protest in Selma, Alabama knowing the violent sheriff will act out, thus lighting a short wick fuse for the fire of a national outrage. He enlists his many disciples to obstruct the path to the courthouse.
It’s a deft political move, but a shocking one—MLK casts protestors who treat him as their Messiah as pawns in the chess game of media manipulation. And, like in any game of chess, it is sometimes necessary to lose a few pawns to strike check mate. A young boy is brutally killed in a nighttime police raid, and Selma bravely doesn’t shy from implicating MLK as a cause. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proves the necessity of wide ranging political strategy, and watching Selma as a House of Cards styled political battle lets it work to its strengths.
But I must say, Selma is not a good movie. I wish it was. If movies are magic (and I believe they are) Duvernay hasn’t mastered more than entry level tricks. Her style suffers from no sleight of hand, and her tricks of camera and editing are anything but invisible. Watching Selma mirrors the bombastic experience of an old melodrama, where every emotion, plot turn, and character is played as loudly, stupidly, and in your face as possible. It is style aimed at one purpose: to provoke you any way it can, and quality be damned if the filmmakers feel guilty about it. Selma is a very good, sometimes overwhelming and often powerful TV movie that seems to have shown a fake ID to sneak into the theater. Ugly, cheap lighting can’t treat its production design with a cinematic bravado nearly equal to the monumental story Selma nobly limps through telling.
Trips to the White House, Selma, an iconic bridge, and the King household, fail to form an authentic world for Martin Luther King Jr. to inhabit. Camera setups rigidly follow the rules taught to first year film school students, and never is there a doubt DuVernay is an alum of abc’s political soap opera Scandal. It doesn’t matter that most audience members might not pay attention to how the camera’s moving or how poetic a lighting choice is, because those are the choices that are in dialogue with the viewer, that presents material that asks viewer to take a step forward, to suspend their disbelief, and put their trust in a power bigger than themselves. The movies show that the right director, with the right writer, with the right cast, and the right production team can make cinema into a borderline religious experience to be universally shared, discussed, recounted, and embraced. It is a sadness that Selma can’t be more than a little movie about a huge topic, and doesn’t come close to what it should have been.
But DuVernay’s lack of cinematic elegance and tact—a B-rate television director if there ever was one—can’t get in the way of a story this inherently powerful. The tale at the core of Selma is to movies what mountains are to cinematographers, that is, the content being captured (in this case dramatized) is so powerful, so striking, it would take a natural disaster of a director to sabotage it. I hazard if Ferguson didn’t explode how it did (along with a multitude of other examples), Selma wouldn’t strike such a resonant chord. Its current standing 99% on Rotten Tomatoes seems equally unlikely. But those things did happen, and it does have a 99%, and at no point watching do you question why. Movies cannot be made or watched in a vacuum. Selma resoundingly proves why.
In the riots, we see everything. African-Americans are savagely brutalized, obscenities that have been captured in photographs that circulated the nation. King has his revolution, and he twists the political knife from a demonstration in Selma to a march from it all the way to Montgomery. A climactic bridge scene shows police riding on horseback whipping running black men and women, beating without hesitation. I sat breathless. It’s the best handled scene in the film, staged with enough visual coherence for its chaos to be convincing, and watching belligerent racist fucks beating down African-Americans like hunting game angers as well as hurts. Tears are not rare; my face left the theater wet.
Paul Webb and DuVernary’s script balances MLK’s home-life with his political agenda, and while neither give much insight into the man himself, Oyelowo’s performance does. Oyelowo brings a deity down to earth with the same tender hand as Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg’s Lincoln, and your ticket price buys you a human glance at a figure known mostly only through impassioned speeches retained on YouTube. But what speeches! And those we hear Oyelowo give are the stuff that give goosebumps.
Also giving Selma a sense of soap opera are the antagonists, namely Tim Roth’s Governor, who behaves with the same scheming malevolence as a Bond villain. Such characters embody qualities that common sense dismisses as unbelievable. If it only wasn't the case you knew so much of it was true. The truth hits a hard enough blow it can’t be deafened by the soft touch of the filmmakers, and with a virtuoso from David Oyelowo leading the show, Selma crudely informs with heartbreaking power.
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