Last night I saw ‘Selma,’ written by Paul Webb, directed by Ava DuVernay and staring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson and Common, just to name a few. It is a powerful, strong, emotional movie that portrays the events that lead up to the march from Selma to Montgomery and the march its self.
The movie starts off strong, depicting the bombings of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. An infamous scene taught to every child in elementary school in America. The scene is powerful and shocking. I was completely caught off guard. Sadly, all the wind is taken out of the movie once the next scene begins, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Switzerland, beginning with stale dialogue about not knowing how to tie an ascot. The movie continues on in that fashion for the majority of the film. There are a few points where the film revisits that passion and intensity, but they lack consistency. The direction seems lost and lacks a strong central narrative. It climaxes too soon and ends up being almost anti-climatic in the end, loosing all the passion and momentum the film gains during its first half.
The Director, DuVernay, plays it safe through out the film. It is as if she does not want take any chances. It appears as if she is holding back the entire time, trying too hard not to offend anyone. Her lack of strong choices ultimately make the film feel as if it is trying to make too many people happy and not trying to make enough people feel something. A strong story and a beloved character are not enough to make a good movie. If you are expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s ‘Malcom X,’ prepare to be very disappointed by its made for TV soulless half cousin.
The movie’s strength lies in the sporting cast. Ejogo’s portrayal of Coretta Scott King and Roth’s belligerent portrayal of Gov. George Wallace come across as honest and believable. However, Henry G. Saunders’s performance as, Cager Lee, the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, is the strongest, most memorable performance in the film. The subtle truths he conveys in his performance, when he meets Dr. King in the morgue, is one of the most memorable and powerful scenes in the film. You feel his pain and loss as if he has taken his own heart and jammed it into your chest, every beat hammers home the cost of freedom.
My only quarrel with the film was was the portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is hard to do a good biopic and not come across like an impersonation. Unfortunately, Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. MLK, Jr. comes across as flat and mediocre. I know that this is more than likely due to the fact that I, as an American grew up listening to MLK’s speeches in school and TV. It has to be hard to portray a person, who in every one’s mind is timeless and unforgettable. When doing so, the actor must be more believable as that person then the actual person himself. Watching Oyelowo play the doctor is akin to watching a Disney animatronic version of MLK, good, but not believable. Aside from the emotionless, lifeless, bland acting Oyelowo seems to have fixated on the using the same three hand gestures when ever he speaks. Overall, his MLK feels more like a bad impression than an honest performance.
The movie had strong religious and emotional undertones that stay with you long after the movie is over. As a reminder of the civil rights movement and the extraordinary power of the people who lead it, the movie serves its purpose well. And that is really what this movie gets right. I can’t help watching it and wanting to know more about the people who were involved. MLK may be the main attraction, but this movie gets its heart from its ensemble cast. The supporting characters/actors more than make the movie worth watching. If you can look past the bland direction and lifeless Dr. MLK, Jr. you will be in for an emotional movie that will shake you. This is not a movie that you will soon forget. No, I don’t think that it deserved an Oscar for best picture…
but it is worth watching.
2.5 out of 4 stars