Selma

This exact moment is a very interesting time to try to write about Selma. On the one hand, it's currently in the news because of the perception that it was snubbed by the Oscars, and that gives the film a certain momentum that's worth dissecting; on the other hand, this particular tempest in a teapot is sure to blow over once the Oscars are over, and any review that focuses too much on the controversy is going to seem rather dated once all the awards have been handed out. 

I only bring that up because I'm all too aware that writing about it without putting it into context would seem disingenuous, but discussing it as if it was already anointed with greatness is also a bit presumptuous. Yes, it is a powerful film, and yes, it does grapple with political concerns that were relevant fifty years ago and that are still relevant now. But the film also has some serious flaws, and I think that treating it as if it should have been a shoo-in for every applicable award is a bit overblown.

Selma's main problem is that it isn't quite sure what it wants to be - a biopic of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. or a movie about civil rights in general. If it had only wanted to examine King's life around the time of the Selma march of 1965 it would have worked like gangbusters, in large part because David Oyelowo is so great at portraying King as a lively, engaging figure. The scenes where he is preaching are electrifying, and they give you a real sense of why people followed him. Oyelowo's King isn't merely a saint, or a martyr-to-be - he's a relateable man fighting as hard as he can for a cause he believes in.

Unfortunately, a lot of the scenes that don't include King suffer from his absence. Oyelowo has enough charisma that his scenes feel alive, but many of the side characters are only included because Selma needs to provide a specific bit of exposition for a later event or because it wants to make a particular point, and those scenes make the movie feel like the sort of earnest-but-dull affair that you're expected to respect even if you can't quite like it. The uneven writing and editing are so frustrating, because it regularly gives you a firecracker of a scene, and then it lags because it has cast it's net too wide and tried to tackle the entire civil rights movement all at once. Every time it shifts gears between being a very narrow film and a very broad film you can hear the clutch grinding.

The film's overreach is understandable - it's just trying to make sure that it's audience fully understands the scope of the problem that King is facing. But a more confident film would have powered through and expected the audience to play catch-up, or a more tightly wound film would have sidestepped the whole problem by keeping the focus squarely on King. Fortunately, the film does grow more assured as the chess game between King and the elected officials of Alabama approaches it's endgame, and the ending march is a powerful sight to behold. Although I must say: I didn't think that it was so powerful that I completely forgot all the clunkiness at the movie's beginning.

I understand why there's so much hype around Selma, and I also understand why it was picked as an example of Hollywood's struggles with diversity. However, I do think that all of the news stories around Selma are a bit misleading, because it isn't quite the epic movie it's being portrayed as. In fact, it is in many ways a very traditional Oscar bait movie, since it tackles a thorny political subject with utter earnestness and a bit too much willingness to hold the audience's hand. Yes, Selma tells a very emotional story - but it's telling a story where the outcome is never in doubt, and there isn't much subtlety about who is in the right and who is in the wrong.

No, I think a more helpful perspective to take when you sit down to watch Selma is to remember that it's director Ava DuVernay is so new to directing that her top credit according to her IMDB page is (as of this writing) for doing publicity work on Spider-Man 2. Basically, all of my complaints about the movie center around the fact that a very promising but very young filmmaker made some rookie mistakes as she was struggling to tell an incredibly large and complicated story. Those little slip ups seem more forgiveable when you think of the movie in that context than they do when you think of it as "the movie that everyone thinks deserves more awards."

Ultimately, I agree with Spike Lee: Selma doesn't need to win some Oscars to create it's legacy - this is a film that's going to be remembered on it's own strengths, and for being the film that jump started Ava DuVernay's (hopefully) long career. And honestly, it might also be remembered by the next generation of Americans as "that film I had to watch every year in school when the history teacher was sick." But truth be told those captive children could have it worse - I had to watch Schindler's List repeatedly when I was in school, and Selma is much, much shorter. 

Winner: Me

Selma on IMDB