SELMA (2014, Ava DuVernay)
If you’re too lazy to read, like I am these days, movies are one way to get information. But they’re not at all the best way, so a movie should be an artistic comment on that information, often sacrificing it in favor of a point of view, some sort of creative pursuit, or at least a means of uniting image with sound and editing to inspire emotion, create a visceral effect, or provoke thought and conversation. My biggest problem with SELMA is that aside from a few impressive flourishes, it mainly serves as a vehicle for information (and also to provoke thought and conversation; though rather than encourage debate it mainly tells you either what you already believe or what you should think). This is PBS historical storytelling in large part, due to characters standing around saying exactly what they mean, telling us exactly what they’re doing, and performed by either community-theater-level actors or big celebrities in distracting cameos. There’s Martin Sheen as a judge! Hey, it’s Cuba Gooding Jr.! Look at Tim Roth chewing scenery as a cartoonish George Wallace! He really can pronounce “Nigras,” can’t he!
DuVernay appears too close to the material to throw an angle on it. She’s quite adept at staging a setpiece (the standoff on the bridge is excellent), she frames close-ups on the wrong side of the screen to provide tension in the dead space, and she can use short bursts of surprising violence to great effect. But it’s still a very straight-forward and simplified account of King’s efforts at eliminating voting rights abuse in Alabama. Careful not to make King too angelic, it brings in his adulterous side for one scene, but that scene is corrupted by Carmen Ejogo’s overreaching, amateurish performance. As for King himself, Oyelowo mimics the man’s speech patterns near-perfectly, and handles all of his screen time without ever looking too much like he’s “acting,” though I wish he had offered a more transparent look into his mind. Contrasted (and this is unfair, but the film invites the comparison) with Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s deliriously masterful epic, it’s bringing a pillow to a gunfight.
Tom Wilkinson isn’t given too many notes to play LBJ, but he comes out fairly clean, and Oprah Winfrey is nicely understated in a couple of key scenes. But the rest of the cast is smothered by the import of the story, raising the flags of righteousness with every word and gesture. I place most of the blame on Paul Webb’s script, which to me most resembled that of HBO’s GAME CHANGE script — a historical political true story where every person either recited an audition monologue or served as a vehicle for exposition. When the thinly drawn characters of SELMA are not nodding their heads with closed eyes at every recitation of a bible passage, they’re only talking about exactly what’s going on. It’s a strange world where subtext does not exist. DuVernay’s beautiful images are designed to provoke emotion, and they do, but those emotions are unambiguous. Almost like propaganda, but at least for the good side. It’s hard not to think of the recent Brown, Garner, Rice, et. al. tragedies as proof that this film is timely and not a relic of a bygone era, but that unfortunately doesn’t improve my opinion of Webb’s script — I’d get just as much reading actual transcripts of King’s speeches, and I wouldn’t feel like I was being preached to as strongly.