Selma opens in select theaters on Christmas Day. It expands to Chicago on January 1, 2015.
I don’t know how long a name like Eric Garner or Michael Brown will remain in the cultural stratosphere. The news reports in cycles, and at this time the protests and riots regarding the deaths of these two black men are dominating. “If it bleeds, it leads” mentions Rene Russo in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler and it certainly seems to be the case as blood is shed over the failed indictment of police officers responsible for the deaths of those two men. I turn on the television and see protestors storm Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. I cycle down a corresponding lakefront path most days and am at awe at the news. Social upheaval is brewing, and it’s reaching places near my home. Unlike most news reports where there’s a vicarious distance between subject and viewer, this is becoming palpable.
This palpability makes Ava DuVernay’s Selma especially vital. It has images that could’ve been lifted from our contemporary news cycle with its point remaining intact. George Santayana’s adage of “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” applies as an ominous forethought to the picture, where the rhetoric of social change is ignited and extinguished when considering the past and present.
Selma details the civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), in the town of Selma, Alabama during the 1960s. It’s a small town that would make some wonder why King would bring his voter’s rights movement there. Historically, Selma functioned as a critical Confederate military commune during the Civil War, whereby much of the South’s ammunition was manufactured and stored. It also served as one of the many important sites that the North would win, dictating their eventual Civil War triumph. In the North’s victory came the South and Selma’s vast disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites. Literacy tests and polling vouchers were obstacles, along with violence from the White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan. With a black population of over fifty percent, only a percent of those had the legal right to vote. And to actually exercise the vote brought about unwelcome scrutiny and murder. Bringing the movement to Selma was a necessary yet dangerous proposition.
So it comes with a measure of disappointment that DuVernay’s film takes this impossibly perilous event and fashions it within the confines of a tried-and-true biopic. DuVernay’s independent roots seem lost in conveying this studio production, in what ultimately feels like a patchwork of a picture. The film opens with the Birmingham Church bombing of 1963, where a wave of shock settles into its audience. It’s an unexpected and incredibly powerful scene, offering the promise that Selma will deviate from the typically safe tropes of biographical filmmaking. But it ultimately devolves from that, where the picture becomes increasingly jarring in movement to the point that it begins to play like a greatest hits album. Part of the problem may come from the fact that the picture was rushed for awards consideration - the first act, which was initially going to be screened at Los Angeles’ AFI Fest before producers opted to show the film in its entirety, is Selma’s most confident display of filmmaking. The early sequences linger on the images of King as a smart but homely man, one of domestic concerns, contending with matrimonial plights and his position of privilege. He’s grounded, critical, and complex, with DuVernay and Oyelowo working to deconstruct the myth without undercutting his significance.
As the picture gets bigger, however, the film resorts to speechifying and grandiose gestures to realize its ambitions. Everything about the film swells to the point that DuVernay loses the naturalistic friction she fostered in earlier portions of the picture. Character actors like Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, and Dylan Baker function as political caricatures, growing increasingly larger as the picture moves forward. Oyelowo fares much better, if only for the rhythms he develops and genuine “lived-in” approach he takes to the role. Yet even he gets swept up in the film’s increasingly aware sense of majesty - what begins as so instinctual and graceful disintegrates into conventional.
Yet wrapped up in all its final platitudes is a call to action and an awareness of our contemporary social climate. The ideals that compose Selma are of rich constitution, elevating even the filmmaking as a result. Sequences involving civil disobedience or even riots parallel that of what can be found on the news and in that, one can derive significant power from the film’s material. This exists in the here and now and because of it there’s a cognizance as to how we absorb the material that’s absolutely visceral. I’m not sure, in fact I doubt, that Selma will maintain that sort of kinetic energy a year or two down the line, but in the here and now it makes for critical viewing.