Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: Selma

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The remarkable "Selma" announces the arrival of 2014's most exciting new cinematic voice - director Ava DuVernay, whose previous film, "Middle of Nowhere," was unseen by me and most everyone else. And one element that makes this film, which doubles as one of the year's best and most important, so impressive is how it tackles subject matter so familiar and creates something so unique with it.

For starters, "Selma" is not a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, although King (played with virtuosity by David Oyelowo) is the lead character in the film, there are numerous other players - from other Civil Rights leaders and King's wife (Carmen Ejogo) to politicians such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) - who are equally as important to the central action of the story.

Rather than focusing on King's life as a whole, the picture follows the events leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, including blacks fighting for their right to vote in the South, King's tense relationship with Johnson and - taking a warts-and-all approach - the Civil Rights leader's struggles in his marriage.

The film's release falls one year short of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, but its timeliness goes way beyond that historical marker. In its depiction of blacks being attacked and brutalized by police and the racially motivated animosity in the South toward King and his fellow marchers, "Selma" should hit close to home, considering national news items as of late.

Typically, biopics tend to portray their icons in one of two ways - stoic and nearly without flaw or really screwed up, but brilliant. DuVernay sidesteps these methods by portraying King as a complex man - ordinary in many ways, but driven and fearless. His marriage is often portrayed as having cracks and Oyelowo, whose performance is easily one of the year's best, portrays the Civil Rights leader as a man who occasionally second-guesses himself, such as during a scene in which he calls off a march, much to the annoyance of his friends and followers.

The film incorporates documentary elements, utilizing stock footage but also typed scrawl logging the dates and times when specific meetings or events took place, but then delving into those scenes intimately. A handful of historic moments during the Civil Rights movement are depicted - the original march on Selma during which protesters were viciously attacked by police by orders of racist Sheriff Jim Clark, the walk from Selma to Montgomery and an artfully handled bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

"Selma" is a movie rife with emotion, but rather than incorporating typical Hollywood techniques to draw out emotion, DuVernay just allows the scenes to unfold, allowing viewers to be inspired, angered and profoundly moved all at once.

It helps that the cast is so inspired. As I'd mentioned before, Oyelowo is terrific as King. But despite their bit parts, a number of supporting actors are able to shine as well, including Wilkinson as LBJ, Roth as the bigoted governor, Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Common as James Bevel, Wendell Pierce ("The Wire") as Rev. Hosea Williams, Keith Stanfield as the murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson, Stephan James as John Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, who once again proves her talents as an actress during an especially gripping opening scene as Annie Lee Cooper.

Spike Lee's immense 1992 film "Malcolm X" may have long been the gold standard as the go-to film about the Civil Rights Movement, but DuVernay's film gives it a good run for its money. It's one of the year's best films as well as the arrival of two major talents - its director and star.

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