Selma doesn’t dare to offer the viewer anything new.
Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay. At cinemas throughout New England
By Paul Dervis
The making of Selma was a grand, ambitious project. The town of Selma, Alabama holds a unique place in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. What happened there has the historical significance of the slaying of the three Freedom Riders in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and the oh, so famous bus ride of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
The cast of characters in the film are among the period’s giants of unrest. Besides Martin Luther King Jr. himself, there is Andrew Young who went on to a seat in congress before becoming the Mayor of Atlanta, John Lewis, one of the six leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who for the last 28 years has been a member of Congress, Ralph Abernathy, a Georgia minister and one of the leaders in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and many, many others.
The story chronicles the March from Selma to Montgomery, the capitol of Alabama, a protest that the racist political power brokers of Alabama were determined to halt, violently if need be, and that the White House wished to delay. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who many believe to be the Movement’s most fervent Washington supporter during this turbulent era, is seen as an obstacle in this version of events — he does not come off as a sympathetic character, which has generated charges about tampering with history.
Much of the film follows the back room dealings, the various interested parties coming up with conflicting strategies to accomplish a vital goal: getting African Americans in the state registered to vote. Even Malcolm X shows up to assist Coretta Scott King. And we are given a Martin Luther King, Jr. who is determined to press forward with the March even as he becomes increasingly aware of his own likely demise. This is the King of conventional legend.
And that may be the biggest problem with this film.
Selma doesn’t offer the viewer anything new. Its perspective is etched in concrete at this point. By presenting an ‘official” version, the film ends up lacking a complex, convincingly human Martin Luther King at its center. David Oyelowo plays MLK and he is a fine actor, but the best he is able to do is to convey King’s intensity, particularly in the character’s quiet moments as he contemplates the hazards of standing on the precipice of history, grappling with internal as well as external devils. What’s missing is the charismatic power of the man, the King whose startling leadership took on Biblical resonances. And there are no surprises here — no moments in which King’s personality is seen in a new light. There was a disappointing ‘sameness’ to the rest of the performances, as if most of the cast didn’t dare to interpret their characters. It was simply enough for them to be a dependable part of a chronicle of the events that led to one of America’s darkest moments, and it’s spirit-lifting outcome.
The exceptions to the formulaic performances were provided by Stephan James and, surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey. James, as John Lewis, played a small but pivotal role. He created a complex character, obviously struggling with the direction the Civil Rights Movement was headed. And Winfrey takes on the role of Annie Lee Cooper, an older woman who tries time and time again to register, only to be repeatedly turned away. She gives a remarkably subtle performance. She was powerful, determined, yet in control. Kudos.
Director Ava DuVernay played it safe. She kept the story moving and did a agile job of balancing the actions leading up to the March with the private moments of those involved. She provided just enough footage of the actual March to remind viewers that what they were watching was based on history. The film’s most powerful episode was the Birmingham Church explosion, where four young girls perished. It was a haunting scene, shot with an impressionistic eye. The film could have used much more of this adventurous style.
But Selma ultimately comes across as a film inspired by those ‘learn to paint by numbers’ sets from my childhood. The picture looks nice, but when compared to the real deal, well ….
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.
Gerald Peary says
I agree with you, Paul. I’m amazed at all the reviews claiming a deeply emotional experience. Selma felt to me like a well-intentioned, talky TV movie.
Paul Dervis says
Well put, Gerald