Directed by Ana DuVarnay
Okay, so the way I see it, there are three ways to look at this film; as a simple, emotional, movie-going audience member; as a lover of historical accuracy; and as a critic of moviecraft. So let’s do all three, since I have no problem watching a film while wearing three different hats.
EMOTIONAL PUNCH: It was with no small bit of irony that I attended this screening on the same day that the Alabama LGBTQ community gained the right to marry in that state. But the awareness of the film’s importance, both before and after attending, comes from the knowledge that the Voting Rights Act was gutted by SCOTUS just a few months back, because, you know, “there are no more racists.” In that sense, this film packs a wallop. I won’t say I was invested in every scene (more on that issue later), but those scenes that did work were VERY powerful, none more so than the second scene of the film. In fact, to some degree, the film was the victim of its own early success as it tried to get you back there for the next two hours, and, alas, only succeeded on a few occasions. But that is literally picking nits. The film makes you FEEL…and that’s more than enough for a film with so much responsibility to succeed.
HISTORICAL ARTIFACT: Okay. So, I’m not sure where I fall on the “art is art” side when we’re discussing historical events that happened in our lifetime. I won’t say I minded terribly how historically inaccurate the film was, but it really, really was. Putting aside for the moment that the REAL enemy in the Fed was Hoover (not LBJ) and that the timeline of LBJ’s actions was grossly inaccurate, the real issue here, for me, was probably unintentional. I think the film wants you to see the Southern white as the enemy and LBJ as the mountain that needs to be moved. Alas, it kinda sorta paints LBJ as almost an equal enemy. Now, I’m sure many (if not most) African Americans will (correctly) say that as long as he did not push forward the Voting Rights Act, he WAS the enemy. But, even Dr. King, IN THE FILM, has his doubts about whether LBJ’s original agenda to end poverty and bring education to those previously barred from it, might not be an equally important way to go. History has obviously taught us that Dr. King’s way was correct, but that doesn’t mean LBJ didn’t care. Some might even say he was the last truly progressive President we ever had (no, I’m not ignoring his part in Vietnam – but even Obama took six years to – sort of – extricate us from W’s mess). But I think I can live with the misrepresentation for the sake of the story, because, well, there are so few stories about leaders who actually LEAD, post-Gore v. Bush.
MOVIE CRAFT: Okay, here we go. STRICTLY speaking, as someone who sees about 150 films a year, I feel pretty comfortable declaring the following: In my opinion, Ana DuVarnay did not deserve a nomination. Stylistically it is WOEFULLY inconsistent, she glosses over small moments that could have been huge, and plays up huge moments as if we need the help to notice them…we don’t. It’s just not one of the best five helmed films of the year…maybe not even in the top ten. As for the acting, the only performers she allows to have a multi-dimensional onscreen life are Oloyewo (who is magnificent), a young actor I’d not heard of before named Stephen James – who gives a star turn as John Lewis, and Jeremy Strong, as a reverend from Boston. But every other performance is completely hamstrung by a script that refuses to let the breath of life flow in to the memories of these ACTUAL people. Somehow Wilkinson and Tim Roth are both laughably one-dimensional. How do you make George Wallace uninteresting? Well, by making him a silly monster instead of a horrible, horrible human being who embodied generations of white power and racial hatred. Wouldn’t that be the better choice? The scarier choice? You know…the way racism really is?
So in the end, and to sum up, It must be seen! The message, especially in “post-racial” America, needs to be shouted from the mountaintops MUCH more often. There should be dozens of movies about Dr. King. Not just one. But since there is only one, we can at least rest easy knowing that “Selma” WILL move those who see it.
Originally written on 1/24/2015