AFI Fest Film Review: Selma (★★★)

selma posterAFI Film Festival: Like Martin Luther King, Jr. before her, director Ava DuVernay is a trailblazer for people of color everywhere. Her films are about transcending the everyday struggles, triumphs and breakthroughs of her community through relatable, extraordinary characters living ordinary lives. Her work isn’t heightened or overblown — it’s grounded in the real and authentic, which is what makes Selma a fish out of water among biopic fare. Here is a movie that stands firmly behind history and documentation but doesn’t settle on the word of fine print. It digs deeper into those involved with the courageous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, people whose very lives were put on the line in the name of basic equality. More than anything, though, is the ingenious way Selma approaches its primary orchestrator of change: Martin Luther King, Jr., depicted here as a frightened, emotionally vulnerable man first and foremost…and a great leader second. The heroes that stand the test of time understand the value of human life and are beyond afraid of losing it. King never wanted to be a martyr or take unnecessary risks – he knew that life is precious; that there is such a thing as strength in numbers, that today’s fight might have to wait until a safer tomorrow. King wasn’t infallible but his wisdom and reluctance to “pull the trigger,” you might say, saved thousands of lives and freed millions more. Still, Selma makes no qualms about revealing one unwavering truth: Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t a one-man army whose charisma and eloquence flipped the nation’s script. A community of dreamers and liberators, working alongside King and championing his methods, achieved all that and more.

Selma begins with shocking violence following a speech of hope. The horrors continue as the film’s opening act concludes with unintentional agitation in the form of the brave and bold Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), an elderly African-American woman with the courage to register as a new voter. The clerk at the front desk all but asks her to jump through hoops of fire as he hurls irrelevant question after irrelevant question in an attempt to stump her into submission. When Annie Lee’s knowledge of the U.S. government — which is impressively vast, by the way – finally hits a wall, the registrar gleefully denies her voter status. What follows is rage, despair and a groundswell of support taking place in pivotal Selma, Alabama.

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Before MLK (David Oyelowo) takes nonviolent action en masse, he first attempts to appeal to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) humanity. It turns out that human decency is second or third on Johnson’s list of priorities as Commander in Chief, and if he’s to have a good term in office he must abide by the expectations of his constituents. In other words, LBJ is a coward of the lowest order, which is ironic since he holds the highest position of power in the nation. Therefore, MLK has no choice but to join the good fight in Selma in an effort to persuade Alabaman governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) to end his racist crusade against its black population. History tells us that MLK’s involvement in Selma and subsequent march to Montgomery led to the groundbreaking 1965 Voting Rights Act. DuVernay’s film plants us right at ground zero, taking us into the heart of the action from start to finish without ever coming up for air.

Is MLK running toward his ultimate purpose in life or sprinting away from the drama behind closed doors? Even the President of the United States and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) know something is amiss inside the King household. MLK’s wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) is a pillar of fortitude, unshakable in her commitment to righteousness and freedom but has zero tolerance for liars and cheats. I wanted Coretta to be unpacked even further, as I thought she had a lot more to offer than what was shown, but that doesn’t undo Carmen Ejogo’s stellar performance as the grieving wife who must be a rock for her children whilst standing up for her own dignity as a woman. In one of the film’s best scenes, Coretta hones in on one major character flaw of King’s during a tense conversation and the man practically unravels in his seat. These personal moments between the couple demystify the television persona of King and reveal the complicated, wounded and flawed man that he was.

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Selma’s portrayal of violence isn’t gratuitous or showy – the moments come sharp, brutal and occur without warning…much like the real-life events that inspired such gut-wrenching sequences. DuVernay does an outstanding job tempering the action by individualizing the traumatic experiences at hand. Perspectives are traded off and no experience is the same despite uniform assault, amplifying this sense of a community made up of unique individuals with different outlooks but of one liberal mind. Cinematographer Bradford Young once again augments the beauty of blackness from and through darkness with luscious hues and radiant soft focus. It’s already been established that there’s no greater capturer of black complexion on film, but in Selma Bradford is now elevating his craft by flawlessly working within set studio parameters. Despite the restrictions, Young is still able to flex his artistic muscles and add so much richness and nuance to scenes that feel simple by design. Although I’m partial to his work in A Most Violent Year, Middle of Nowhere and Mother of George, it must be said that Selma is going to do wonders for Bradford Young’s already extraordinary career.

David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. is astonishing and richly inhabited. During the film’s post-screening Q&A, Oyelowo admitted that a higher power told him he’d one day play MLK in a motion picture. Whether you believe him or not, Oyelowo conjures up something that doesn’t seem of this world. What he is able to pull off in this film goes beyond imitation or even cinematic resurrection. Oyelowo removes himself from the thought process and allows King’s ideology and grace to guide his emotions, reactions, mannerisms and vocal patterns. Oyelowo is not a man possessed; he is a man inspired and subsequently transforms. He handles rousing speeches and monologues with vigor, enthusiasm and believability. Never once does it feel like Oyelowo’s MLK is condescending or inaccessible to the masses. Even when Selma lulls on occasion, all it takes is one decibel of vocal clarity from Oyelowo to wake us back up and reenergize our batteries. It may be too soon to start throwing the word “Oscar” into the mix, but Oyelowo would make a deserving “Best Actor” winner and possibly an even better speech-giver if last night’s Q&A was any indication. He’s certainly going to see many a podium this awards season.

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So if I rave up and down about this film, why the generous if not exactly amazing 3-star score, you ask? Well, as important, prolific, necessary and powerful as Selma is, it’s a hair or two shy from being great cinema. My main issue with the film is its refusal to explore its female characters to the fullest or give them as many lines of dialogue as their male counterparts. Particularly in the cases of Tessa Thompson’s Diane Nash and Lorraine Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton, you don’t get more than a few words apiece from the two throughout the entire film. Toussaint’s Amelia has perhaps the best monologue in the entire movie yet never makes another peep again or even before if memory serves correct. We know she is no mute, so why the shortage of dialogue? Tessa Thompson’s Diane Nash always accompanies the men of the revolution but doesn’t get her own arc like some of the other secondary male characters do, nor are we informed in detail of her past contributions to the civil rights movement. She’s simply placed into the film and exists in name only. To a lesser extent, the same is true for Coretta and Annie Lee Cooper, but at least they have some dramatic meat to chew on than just giving sad, hardened stares into the camera. I also felt Niecy Nash was underutilized given her knack for humor and spitfire reactions.

Selma struggles a bit when it comes to its exposition scenes, namely those involving the White House. In an attempt to bring a bit of levity to the serious proceedings, Baker, Wilkinson and Roth all “ham up” their performances, effectively demonstrating their characters’ laughable idiocy but because it’s so forced, it occasionally throws you out of the film entirely. I’m uncertain if a few more trips to the editing room would have made a difference, but I do know those scenes play the absolute weakest onscreen.

Script, underdeveloped female characters, and tonal issues aside, Selma makes its mark on the Oscar race and is poised to do very well in major categories, including “Best Picture,” “Best Actor” and “Best Director.” Ava DuVernay has created a monumental achievement and arguably the best motion picture featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center. Selma also feels more relevant than ever before given how the horrors experienced then echo the shooting of Michael Brown and the Ferguson, Missouri showdown that immediately followed. Peaceful protesting isn’t grounds for aggressive militarization, and yet the actions of the Ferguson police force demonstrate how discrimination and racism continue to exist at large. I sincerely hope Selma will go beyond the awards glitz and glamour by educating the ignorant and mobilizing the next generation of nonviolent freedom fighters. Ava DuVernay’s heartfelt and courageous Selma represents Hollywood at its most unafraid.

Paramount Vantage will release Selma wide on January 9th, 2015 but the film will have limited engagements in select cities beginning December 25th, 2014. Check out the trailer below!