Mark Reviews Movies

Selma

SELMA

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Nigel Thatch, Martin Sheen 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 12/25/14 (limited); 1/1/15 (wider); 1/9/15 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 31, 2014

Everything is politics. That is the key lesson of director Ava DuVernay's incredibly intelligent and resolutely patient Selma, which depicts the buildup to, the false starts of, and the eventual success of the 1965 protest march from the eponymous city to Montgomery, Alabama. The march, of course, was an act of politics, intended to shine a light on the inherent injustice of voting laws aimed against African Americans in the South. In the film, though, the march is just the very public culmination of a series of private or not-as-public political actions. These take place during sermons in churches and the halls within those buildings, over the course of car rides and in living rooms, and within the office of the state's governor and the Oval Office.

"Politics" does not imply the way the word has been diluted as of late to signify political parties, the left and right of the political spectrum, or other distinctions that emphasize conflict. This is politics in its most basic and—if we're still allowed to use the descriptor to label a process that has become synonymous with corruption—purest form. It's the machinations, maneuvers, and mediations conducted on a private scale and in public displays. It's power—wielding it and using it to enact change within society.

The film provides us with a wide range of power through its characters, from the President of the United States to a woman who has been denied her Constitutional right to vote because of a rigged "intelligence test." While the film is a thoroughly engrossing portrayal of politics in its most rudimentary shape, it is also a rousing representation of the concept of democracy at its best and most potent.

Everyone here has some form of influence to one degree or another. The film shows us that it was that way—the way it should be—not so long ago, and it's a notion that always bears repeating. That a reminder about the civil rights movement still has specific relevancy to our current political climate, though, is a depressing commentary on our times.

At the story's center is Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo, giving a performance that encapsulates the spirit of that great man), who receives the Nobel Peace Prize at the start of the film. In his acceptance speech, he puts forth the injustices of fire hoses, dogs, brutality, and the bombing and burning of churches against the just cause of people seeking the unhindered ability to exercise their right to vote.

These injustices and crimes are left unprosecuted or unpunished. The film establishes that background with a chilling sequence of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, with four little girls walking down the stairs before the image erupts into one of abstract horror painted in smoke and flame. Cinematographer Bradford Young, who lights most of the film's interiors in rich ambers, recalls the terrifying confusion of that imagery in a later scene of marchers fleeing through a vast cloud of tear gas.

King later analyzes the situation as a plain, concise, and clear-minded progression of logic. Without the ability to vote, black Americans cannot elect officials to any level of government. Hence, no legislation against such injustices and crimes is passed. Without the ability to vote, they cannot remove law enforcement officials and prosecutors who ignore crimes against black citizens. Hence, none of these crimes goes to trial. On the off chance there is a trial, there will be an all-white jury, because the only way to be called to jury service is to be registered to vote. The film is comprehensive in its portrait of not only the moral necessity of the civil rights movement and legislation but also the practical need for them.

In King's mind, it all boils down to securing the right to vote, which was at least nominally safeguarded by the various federal civil rights acts. Certain state legislatures got around the provisions with Jim Crow laws, allowing jurisdictions to refuse voter registration to black citizens for a myriad of ridiculous reasons—without any "official" discrimination, of course.

Paul Webb's screenplay is masterful in the way it presents the complex legislative history of and the injustices that sparked the civil rights movement as a condensed, immediate call to action for the players. Webb is also mindful of the conflicts between political opponents and allies alike. King and his group, including his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), go to Selma, where a student organization is skeptical of the publicity King will bring, while King's people note that the students simply aren't doing enough.

Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) talks a good deal about "states' rights" while ordering various law enforcement agencies to come down on the protestors. At the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) wants to focus on a war on poverty and doesn't see a political benefit for himself in King's desire for federal voting rights legislation. He enlists FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to dig up dirt on King. Hoover, convinced that King has seedy political ties, doesn't need the push.

Webb frames the story with the FBI's reports on King, which find imaginary, dastardly schemes from "agitators" and perceived enemies in the most mundane of actions and discussions. When Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) arrives to ensure Coretta that he has changed his outlook (King is still skeptical of the man), we can almost sense a malicious opportunism in the FBI's report of the meeting. There's definitely a gleeful spite in the way Hoover provides Coretta with evidence of her husband's infidelity. DuVernay and Webb approach that subject with the mature, realistic delicacy a private quarrel between a husband and wife deserves.

This is a film of specifics—of debates and discussions about tactics and ideology, of moments when ideals are tested well beyond their limitations, of the characters' needs and wants. All of these collide in a scene where King, ready to start the march, must decide between his immediate goal and the bigger picture, in which following through with his immediate plan could put the larger strategy in jeopardy. There's a palpable intimacy to the way DuVernay and Webb communicate this internal conflict. The other, more obvious conflicts possess that same quality.

Because of that detailed understanding of the characters and situation, we're keenly aware of the connections to the present here. One day, Selma will be a time capsule of the issues and political battles of the era it depicts. One day, we'll be able to watch the film without associating it with voter identification laws, a Supreme Court decision that put an arbitrary expiration date on racial discrimination, and a string of highly publicized and questionable police killings. One day, it won't be just a Dream.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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