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Selma: Overall, an Evocative and Timely Piece

    By Mark Brians. January 23, 2015 - 2:08 pm

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Snubbed for an Oscar, Ava DuVernay’s Selma powerfully depicts the events surrounding theO impavid march led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in the mid 1960’s to secure the just exercise of voting rights for African Americans.

DuVernay’s tells the story well, showing an artful utility in both classic cinematographic techniques and raddling-in powerful production tropes furnished by hip-hop and urban video making.

She shows great care for the look and sound of the film and with great dexterity she is able to begin a sequence with a long, widescreen pan, reminiscent almost of the cinema du look movement. Concluding with a persecution sequence of violence and death, utilizing the jarring handheld, and gritty plays-on-speed techniques stock in contemporary filmmaking.

The acting for the most part is excellent. This only redoubles the charge of misconduct by the Academy for its snubbing of the film. Oyelowo gives an impressive performance as MLK, doing honor to the name while capturing the tenor of his life, which is marked as much by victory as by shortcoming, doubt and asperity.

selmaOyelowo’s performance was the gift of a real person behind the Civil Rights movement mythos; for it is in his humanity that the triumph of his overcoming faith rings truest.

Carmen Ejogo’s portrayal of Coretta Scott King complemented Oyelowo’s, allowing for a powerful dynamism between the two. Tim Roth’s performance as the swarthy Alabama governor, cannot go without approbation. In cinema it is easy to do the supporting-role bad guy shtick. For the subaltern villain, once hated, is often easily forgotten; swallowed-up in the protagonist’s victory and in the main villain’s downfall. It is hard to play the secondary-antagonist memorably. This Roth is achieved by tempering his cruelty with craven subtlety.

Another thing that DuVernay’s film executes with exactitude are the speeches, the homilies, and the elocutionary force for which Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered. Here again Oyelowo’s incredible performance was met with DuVernay’s deft filmmaking.

In spite of these successes, and the success of the film overall, the film was benighted at times by a few disappointing directorial issues. The first was the decision to cast Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper. This is not necessarily because Winfrey cannot act, but rather, because her ability to act is not powerful enough to overcome her over-publicized magnate persona. Winfrey’s is a life that is never not on screen; never not on the cover of some magazine; never not simultaneously playing the role of luxuriant philanthropist and disenfranchised victim. Such a lifestyle may be overcome in the actor’s performance. Winfrey’s however, is not.

Secondly, the film profoundly over-simplified an extremely complex historical event, laying the onus of the tragedy of discrimination and injustice upon the shoulders of a few uneducated white conservatives – almost all of whom could be situated nicely under the title of ‘red-neck’.

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Little is said of the complex party-alignments of southern legislators which had to be negotiated by civil rights activists, of the way in which Johnson sacrificed the power of his party for the civil rights movement, nor is anything mentioned about the massive progressive opposition to desegregation on more eugenic platforms.

Someone (an elderly Caucasian lady) in the theater behind me shouted at the screen during a moment of racial tension in the film: “White trash!”  And this is precisely the problem with such reductionism: in some neo-liberal sense of guilt, we reduce the suffering of thousands of people of color to the bully-clubs of a few bigoted scapegraces.

The issues at hand were bigger and more complex than that, as they are today. Such reductionism does damage to the legacy of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream he invited a nation to hold.

The other thing that was problematic with the film was the lack of depth in the interpersonal dialogues. As mentioned above, DuVernay’s execution of the speeches, debates, and public elocutionary moments was without blemish. In many cases, however, this rhetorical style was maintained between people in the most personal settings, in the most intimate situations.

This was problematic as it rendered certain scenes, like the moments of conflicts between Martin and his wife, stodgy and cold when they could have been some of the most powerful parts of the film. When the characters speak ever in the polemical, homiletic style of Dr. King’s oration, it makes the film come-off preachy, even though it isn’t.

Such instances of poor dialogue, compounded by the over-simplification of complex issues and the presence of movie-industry potentate Oprah Winfrey, unnecessarily undermined the beauty of the film, and DuVeray’s real genius. 

Nevertheless, the film is an evocative and timely piece. Bedaubed as it may be by certain directorial oversights, the soundtrack is spectacular, and the beauty of the story remains. It gives us, beyond the disappointments, a powerful image of struggle, failure, and of overcoming.

Photos courtesy of  nola.com, rogerebert.com and sun-tim.es.

One Response to Selma: Overall, an Evocative and Timely Piece

  1. Cheyne

    January 23, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Agree with second half