Golden Globes 2015 Contender Film Review: "Selma"
Triumphant Dramatization of Martin Luther King's Heroic Civil Rights Crusade Demands To Be Seen
"No one can sooth your pain. I do know one thing. God was the first to cry.", David Oyelowo's MLK says to a grieving father whose son was just shot point blank by a belligerant white officer in Selma, Alabama following a non-violent demonstration. It is in this moment, in a film full of them, that the gravity of one's actions overshadow words and take your breath away, for better or worse. As King's resolute humility makes painstakingly clear, this was a leader who knew how to connect with each and every person he touched and is emblematic of not just his era but especially of ours, now more than ever.
The sting of the aftermath of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the more recent double-murder of two ethnic cops still resounds throughout this supposedly great ol' US of A. In King's time, this was a significantly more frequent occurrence with the assassination of promising President Kennedy and the fallout from the landslide victory of President Lyndon Johnson in a special swear-in. The movie, directed so precisely and with utmost care and vivid passion by 2012 Sundance Best Director ("Middle of Nowhere") recipient and "Scandal" TV episode director Ava DuVernay not only commemorates these historic events we've been ingrained with by reading history books for years but demands you to re-evaluate their place and impact in our culture and society today as well as then.
And folks, this ain't Oscar bait. It may have the tell-tale signs - A-List cast, genre trademarks and the colossal producing credits of Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey but it behaves and advances with the propulsive, unchained, intensity of a passionate independent filmmaker with a mission. Think of it as the "12 Years A Slave" for our era. While that film dealt with the harrowing abuse and subjugation of a once freed black man in the antebellum South and was gracefully directed but more intentionally shocking and disturbing, "Selma" finds a more comfortable balance tonally by basing King's mission around the psychological effects and eventual physical erosion that the continuous marching and fledging activism took on him. It painted him as real, flawed, and most of all human. Fortunately, the soaring speeches and rhetoric were kept to a minimum but when used in the film were captivating, purposeful and important and served as welcome additions rather than copious stretches of empty running time. DuVernay's creative and narrative instincts couldn't have been more spot-on.
Oh, and did I mention the supporting cast? We are talking a who's who of some of the greatest actors of the last 25 years. We've got the forceful presence of Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Tim Roth as despicable Alabama Gov. Wallace, Cuba Gooding Jr. as DA Fred Gray and Oprah Winfrey as activist/protestor Annie Lee Cooper. Oh and some fantastic surprises in The Wire's Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams, Dylan Baker (Kurt Connors in Sam Raimi's "Spiderman films") as late-period J. Edgar Hoover, and hip-hop artist Common as passionate activist James Bevel. Still, even with all the talent assembled, it is definitely Oyelowo who simply owns the screen in every frame as MLK. He isn't overshadowed for a minute and instead the star-studded rest simply help to add gravitas to their respectable and historically poignant portrayals with commitment, sincerity and conviction. Sometimes, in casts of this magnitude, the central protagonist's impact is dimmed like in 2013's uninspiring, misguided and flaccid Lee Daniel's "The Butler." While its heart was definitely in the right place, that film should have aspired to and might have achieved more if it aimed and succeeded to the degree that "Selma" did. In any case, you can effectively "unsee" that film by seeing this one and you'll be all the better for it.
Now, the burning question remains: Could "Selma" very well sweep all the awards shows and secure Ms. DuVernay as rightfully one of the greatest up and coming voices to enter the scene since Director Steve McQueen? More to the point, how does one follow-up such a topical and soaring film such as this and expect to cement her clout and further her distinction? Only time will tell, but if this film is any indication, we should expect to see a lot of her for years to come. Hell, maybe they'll hand her the coveted job of handling the Wonder Woman movie? Decisions, decisions.
***NOTE: Listen to the John Legend/Common team-up closing credits song in its full awesomeness on SoundCloud. It is aptly titled "Glory" and acts as a tremendous bookend to this film with razor-sharp insight from Common's raps and John Legend's command of the keys and excellent vocals. It is very Gospel-like. LINK: GLORY by John Legend & Common