Director Ava DuVarney’s third feature film is impressive on many levels. Yet, given its potent subject matter, other than a few scenes, “Selma” is emotionally flat and uninspiring. This is especially surprising in the wake of the George Zimmerman and Michael Brown incidents. You would think a reminder that the American Civil Rights movement was once driven by Christian righteousness as opposed to lies, racketeering, and nihilism, would stir your insides.
The drama centers around a specific landmark event in the American Civil Rights movement: the 1965 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery — the heart of then-Governor George Wallace’s segregated Alabama — to protest poll taxes and other un-American policies designed by degenerate racists to keep black Americans from enjoying their Constitutional, God-given right to vote, and by extension, to determine their own futures.
The march and the behind-the-scenes battle that made it a reality was fought by many (young, old, black, white, Christian, Jew) and led primarily by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelwo). The history behind the history was an emotionally agonizing journey for the impossibly young preacher (King was only 36 at the time) that took him to President Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office, to the side of a devastated grandfather grieving in a sterile morgue (easily the movie’s best scene), to prison, and ultimately to a historic triumph for black Americans and America itself.
When not politically and morally out-maneuvering an American president reluctant to protect the physical well-being and civil rights of his own people, King is building bridges with rival Civil Rights groups (John Lewis and the SNCC) and trying to hold together a marriage fractured by the ever-present threat of death and a husband’s infidelity.
In many ways “Selma” is a lesser yet still worthy bookend to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” another film that humanized a major American political figure and looked in-depth at the political sausage-making required to birth a seminal moment in our troubled racial history. DuVarney is no Spielberg, though, and has either gone out of her way to avoid Big Emotional Payoffs, or failed to deliver one.
“Selma” is plenty competent and at times compelling. It’s also emotionally remote and flat. Oyelwo looks and sounds like King, but the hairs on the back of my neck never stood up, even during a handful scenes recreating King’s magnificent speeches. At times Oyelwo managed to even make King’s oratory sound trite and tiresome — as though he had switched out a King speech for a Barack Obama speech.
Wilkinson doesn’t come close to capturing the charming, hangdog, backslapping Johnson. His Texas accent is terrible and the subplot dishonest. For reasons that are completely unnecessary (King had plenty of real antagonists) “Selma” defames Johnson. The film would have us believe Johnson was the villain in this story, when the truth is that he was King’s not-so-silent partner in a wonderful public relations conspiracy that would result in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Tim Roth is no more convincing as Wallace.
Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover plays like a bizarre Renfield to Johnson’s Dracula.
Though some of the scenes are noticeably under lit, “Selma” does a beautiful job recreating its time and place. When possible, scenes were recreated where they actually happened 50 years ago, including Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where, after two aborted attempts, including Bloody Sunday (the film’s heartbreaking centerpiece), the historic voter registration march began.
A short but superbly constructed scene involving a somewhat penitent Malcolm X just a few weeks away from his own assassination at the hands of the Nation of Islam, will hopefully renew interest in a much better film covering that same era, Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece “Malcolm X.” That’s a movie filled with heart, vibrancy, and the kind of directorial flourishes that scream CINEMA.
“Selma” barely rises above a well-made HBO movie.
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