Thursday, December 25, 2014

Selma Movie Review

David Oyelowo (center) stars in Selma

A Bridge Too Far
by Susan Barocas (Contributing Editor)

Watching the film Selma, you can’t help but be emotionally moved. The history of the civil rights struggle in this country is filled with too much ignorance and fear, too much violence and bloodshed, for any of us (of any age) to not learn what happened. Sadly, current events make us realize there is still much work to be done.

And that’s why this is such a challenging review for me to write. Watching the film means getting so caught up in the history, that I hesitate to bring up any flaws in the film itself as a film.

Selma recounts events during a tumultuous three-month period in 1965 when the fight to secure equal voting rights was led by Dr. Martin Luther King. The campaign faced great dangers from violent opposition, as the film often graphically shows.

Taking on this history 50 years later was an ambitious quest for the award-winning director Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, This Is the Life). The film starts out focusing on personal stories - the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preparing for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with his wife Coretta. Bradford Young's cinematography pulls the audience into the overarching challenges and historical significance of the events as well as the more intimate personal stories.

In one of the film's best scenes, Oprah Winfrey (also one of Selma’s producers) beautifully plays Annie Lee Cooper, a middle-aged black woman trying (yet again) to register to vote with a county clerk in 1964 Alabama. It's here, that we begin to understand the essence of the struggle.

DuVernay is careful to bring historical figures to life with excellent actors who help us recognize who they are. Unfortunately, too many of the characters become stiff as the film progresses... almost as if the history is too big, and ends up overtaking the film components of characters and dialogue.

For much of the film, David Oyelowo (The Butler, Lincoln) makes you believe he is channeling Dr. King; and for this, there's sure to be award talk aimed his way. However, by the second hour, his dialogue starts to feel forced... more as if we're moving from speech to speech to make points, rather than having conversations. I kept thinking that no one really talks like that, even great orators.

Dr. King’s ongoing interaction with President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson stands as one of the more fully realized relationships - full of tension and revelations about power, strategy, resistance and change. Stephan James is excellent as the young John Lewis, and Tim Roth’s portrayal of Governor of Alabama George Wallace makes your skin crawl with revulsion all over again.

Looking at Selma as a film, the pacing drags at times. Some scenes needed tighter editing; and the script could have eased off of "forcing the point” so often. In addition, there is some flexibility with details, which makes me want to beg studios: Please DON'T bill any film as “the real story of…” ever again. It’s a set-up, a dare... an impossibility. Of course, there are small historic details that must fall in the face of the needs of the story; but for me, Selma leaves out one important piece of history that's close to my heart.

While Dr. King is shown welcoming people of different faiths to the march, none appears Jewish. Yet I grew up knowing that Jewish individuals, congregations and organizations were early supporters and funders of the movement, as well as close advisors and friends to Dr. King. Busloads journeyed to Selma for the march, including one of the most important religious thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Iconic photographs show Dr. Heschel at the front of the line, linked arm-in-arm with others, just one person away from Dr. King himself. Rabbi Heschel, the one with longish white hair and beard, famously said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” I wish the film had taken advantage of including this piece of the history in some way, as an opportunity for expanding the understanding of historic ties between the black and Jewish communities.

In the end, this kind of historical accuracy is essential because one of the most significant accomplishments of the film will be educating the young and reminding the rest of us just how bad it was - and more importantly, the power of hard work, courage, friendship and sacrifice to make positive changes. This makes Selma an important movie to see, and take our children to, as well.

Grade: B