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Film Review: Selma

Written by Leslie Bryon Pitt
27.01.15

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For me, Director Ava DuVernay’s best piece of direction comes from shooting her subject Martin Luther King Jnr (David Oyelowo) from the back in a simple close up. The low angle shots of King while he makes his speeches are also powerful and illustrate his effectiveness as a public speaker. Nevertheless the shots from the back are the moments which made my exceedingly short, tightly curled hair stand up on end. We’re witnessing what King faced, almost seeing it from his eyes. More importantly, we’re not only “behind him” as audience members, we’re figuratively behind him as a force. As King marches, the film captures such a community’s sense. We come as one.

DuVernay’s craft has been under the scope as of late, due to her lack of nomination in the Academy Awards for best director. It’s a shame, but I pay those trinkets little mind. Yes, it’s one of the whitest Oscars we’ve seen in a long time, but the nominations are a symptom and not the cause. If the Sony hack did anything, it highlighted how blacks are considered in terms of cultural currency in Hollywood. I’m not entirely sure Selma needs that. The best movies never usually win Oscar’s anyways. When watching Selma I felt sure, no matter what happens to the film in terms of awards, the film would be seen, enjoyed and examined by its audience. As a film, it’s strong enough to do that.

Selma chronicles the plight of Martin Luther King during one of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement, the campaign to secure equal rights for blacks. King plans to demonstrate with an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, through the heart of the rural south. Which, despite recent actions is a still a time of segregation and tremendous unrest. The film opens with King obtaining the Nobel Peace prize in Olso, but is contrasted with the tragic bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. This moment, which occurs suddenly during the opening moments pinpoints the peak of the violence and helps consolidate King reasons for the march.

The film delves deeper into the issues of such a troubled time. To illustrate the movements in time, we are treated to the FBI reports as they spied on King. We peak at heated dealings between King and the country’s president Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Both George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Malcom X (Nigel Thatch) appear and assume their positions. We witness the violence on the streets and the pressure in the offices and the weight bearing down on one man’s shoulders.
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This is completely David Oyelowo’s film. His powerful display along with Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay’s thoughtful screenplay gives us a layered and mesmerising portrayal of King. Selma succeeds in a way that the likes of Lincoln (2012) does not. A man of faith but not saintly, King is portrayed as a flawed yet thoughtful man. Fierce in debate, but self-conscious about the path he wants his plans to take. Oyelowo infuses the films grand speeches with the power of a pastor, reminding us of just how strong King was as an orator. Some of Selma’s best scenes are when they show King as a man as opposed to the icon. Laughing and joking with his partners despite being in jail, sitting around dinner tables or on sofas while they shoot the breeze or plan the march. These moments illuminate Selma because as a film of this nature, it often feels that we do not see these images enough. Moments of black men looking and feeling real, as opposed to static figureheads or stereotypes. Oyelowo, who at one point saw this project hit the skids when it’s original director; Lee Daniels, quit the project, makes near every moment his time on screen count.

Selma is not perfect. From a narrative prospective, some of the dialogue feels flat, while the film starts to stroll during the later stages, losing some of the economy provided earlier on.

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The film is also a great entry point into the history, but it’s not the history, with a broader scope of the surrounding elements being found in the likes of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls (1997). If you’re not up with your knowledge, some characters will feel light until you’re informed fully of who they are during the final credits. One or two of the scenes feel a little trite and DuVernay’s decision to utilize modern hip-hop at the film’s end is understandable yet a jarring misstep.

Such stumbles, however, are mere scuffs on a shiny shoe. Elements which are easily forgiven with the power and emotion that DuVernay gives in other sequences. Moments such as the realisation of Kings Infidelity bring high volumes of tension. The film’s violence is not as explicit as 12 Years a Slave (2014), but the films period and its victims, remind us of just how recently these events occurred. The moment in which King must console the grieving father of Jimmie Lee Jackson is as sobering as it is heart-breaking.

Through all the furore of Ava not becoming the first black female director to be nominated, we’ve seemed to have forgotten the reason we watch films have never been about awards. Many complain about the awards season being a circle jerk, and yet every year we proclaim more outrage of the next perceived snub? Selma does what it needs to without the need for the trinkets and accompanying blurb. It’s smart filmmaking, which entertains, educates and illuminates. Try as hard as it might, the shine of a glittering statue should not blind us from this. In ten years’ time, I will be more likely to remember Selma and DuVernay’s filmmaking, then whoever wins an Academy Award. But if we really need the gleam of Oscar for some sort of material honour. We will wait to see who Selma inspires. Then, as quoted by King in the movie “We go again”.

Kushfilms.com review of Selma – a film we are proud to be marketing in the UK!