Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriter: Ava DuVernay, Paul Webb
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lorraine Toussaint, Alessandro Nivola, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 12/3/14
Opens: December 25, 2014
If you think that the federal holiday in mid-January honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was easy to come by, you’ll think differently if you see Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” When you consider how Dr. King was despised in the southern states from the grass roots on up through the governors, you’ll think that Lyndon Baines Johnson must have been a magician to get his historic civil rights bill through Congress. Then again, it wasn’t all Johnson: in 1983, MLK Day became a holiday in a bill signed by conservative Republic President Ronald Reagan, and by 2000 all fifty states recognized the holiday as their own. When you add to that the election of Barack Obama not once by twice, you might think that we have become a color-blind society, but just as the thought passes through your mind, you recall the recent actions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, NY refusing to bring charges against two police officers who killed Black crime suspects, and the ruling by the jury in Florida freeing George Zimmerman from his executing Trayvon Martin.
As for why Dr. King is the only African-American so recognized and not Frederick Douglass or Nat Turner, Jackie Robinson or Lorraine Hansberry, that’s politics. DuVernay’s “Selma,” filmed on location in that Alabama city, does not deal with King’s assassination or, more important, on his March on Washington, for which he is most famous. We never hear the words “I have a dream.” All that has been extensively covered in news reports and documentaries. DuVernay, whose “This is the Life” chronicles an alternative music movement, lucks out by using David Oyelowo in the role of Dr. King. Oyelowo, whose supporting role in the Oscar-potential “A Most Violent City” foreshadows his dynamism in “Selma,” anchors the story of the Selma march and its background with a huge cast of A-list actors. This movie is of the sort that the Academy likes to honor with best picture accolades, given the importance of the subject and the authenticity of its rendering, even to an audience that knows little about the majordomo of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
An opening scene sets the tone. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a hospice nurse, tries to register to vote at the county office in Selma, only to be required to deliver the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution to the hostile clerk. When she obviously knows the text, the examiner asks her how many judges are in the county, and when she correctly states “sixty-seven,” she is asked to name each one. This is how African-Americans—then called Negroes—are treated in the South to deprive them of their constitutional right to vote. If you think there’s no way this discrimination is carried on today, just look at the states that require registrants to carry photo I.D. cards “to avoid fraud,” though the instances of fraud are less than one percent.
The most dramatic segments of “Selma” graphically depict the hideous beating that marchers for civil rights have to endure at the hands of Sheriff Clark and the Alabama police, who use their clubs and legs freely, even chasing after Blacks who are in a dead run trying to escape. Ultimately when King leads scores of protesters across the bridge, the police are ordered to withdraw, to allow them to pass, but Dr. King may believe that this is a tactic to surround the group and beat them in the usual manner. The marchers withdraw.
The movie is filled with moments of verbal confrontation as well. King tries to get President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to introduce legislation to open up voting rights and even to send federal troops to the south when necessary. Potus, despite his initiatives in pushing through Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, has other matters in mind such as the Vietnam War and tells King to wait.
Other verbal confrontations find governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) trying to persuade President Johnson to defer all actions that might end segregation in his state, and King’s arguments with leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), young hotheads who oppose King’s policy of nonviolence. The most atrocious statement in the film is made by J. Edgar Hoover, who put relentless surveillance on Dr. King, and who tells the president that King is “a moral degenerate.” King’s womanizing gets short shrift, as when his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) asks her man straight-out whether he loves her and whether he loves any other woman.
The make-up department makes efforts to have the actors look as close to the characters they portray as possible, e.g. Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, Ledisi as singer Mahalia Jackson, Andre Holland as Andrew Young, and Stephan James as John Lewis. But without question, the movie scores by a charismatic performance from David Oyelowo (pronounced oh-yellow-oh).
Unrated. 123 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+