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Home » Culture and Criticism

25/31: Selma

Submitted by on January 25, 2015 – 11:00 AM10 Comments
Screen: Cloud Eight Films

Screen: Cloud Eight Films

Selma is at its finest in the quietest moments, quiet enough to hear the hearts breaking.

Henry G. Sanders isn't onscreen quite long enough as Cager Lee to qualify for a Best Supporting nod, and it's a pity, because his faltering testimony to Dr. King about Jimmie, how he was a good boy, is cruelly beautiful. He keeps pausing, hoping King can tell him something uplifting, hopeful, restorative; eventually he breaks down, because they both know he can't.

David Oyelowo as King has a near-impossible task, and he performs it with grace and subtlety. Asked by Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, in something worthy of her charisma for the first time since Kidnapped) (you heard me) if he loves her, he takes a long pause before his slightly wounded but deliberate "yes." Asked if he loved any of the others he's been with outside the marriage, he takes a much longer pause. He's promised not to lie to her, and his eyes scan the room, looking for a solution — to strike at her heart with the truth? to disrespect her further with a lie? — and after what seems like three hours he heaves up a "no." It's uncomfortable, and real, and Oyelowo plays King's fear of physical harm or death during the march itself the same way. Righteousness is wonderful, but it doesn't do a whole lot to keep the pants dry in the face of implacable hatred and sure physical harm, not when you're responsible for the safety of thousands of others. Which is what makes it brave, of course.

Just as brave is…hmm. How to put it. As Wallace's horsemen galloped through the clouds of gas, driving people before them with bullwhips, I wondered how you step into recreating these moments of shattering brutality, as an artist. I wondered what went through Ava DuVernay's mind when she called action on those scenes, how she directed her actors, how Tim Roth got himself to step around to the wrong side of history as George Wallace and not cheat to the audience. Stephan James's eloquently bereft expression of terror during the police assault is, I would say, not entirely acting. And yet, with a few exceptions (it can get a little stagey with the scene-setting dialogue in spots), Selma resists the adrenaline surge and lets events speak, or cry, for themselves. (And hangs a portrait of Andrew Jackson in LBJ's Oval Office. My eye kept going to the (not-so-) Great White Father.) Impressive.

Selma isn't perfect, but that's part of its power, for me. Neither was King. Neither is any of us. One of King's great gifts was to remind us that our flawed, fearful blundering towards each other was a good start, and only a start; Selma's great gift is to remind us that he knew the blundering part firsthand.

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  • sam says:

    my level of love for this movie, in it’s startling…humanity… of all of the characters, when it could have so easily (and much more easily than most, given the men at the center) fallen into “great-man-biopic” tropes is only heightened by the petty nonsense going on “around” the movie.

    Movies that take significantly greater liberties with the “truth” get lauded and awarded without issue. And what is that truth anyway? I saw this film on opening day, and didn’t get any of the “LBJ was evil” vibes that later LBJ partisans seemed to feel. I got “LBJ has 100 different, completely reasonable, all-good-liberal priorities that he doesn’t want to jettison on the rocks of a possibly hopeless case”. And from the perspective of the people whose story was actually being told (for once, not the white guy), there’s not much difference on the ground between “LBJ as liberal crusader who has other slightly more important priorities” and “LBJ as unhelpful obstructionist representative of the white power structure”.

    This movie should win all of the awards. Even the ones it wasn’t nominated for. Not because it’s somehow “time” for an african-american director to win. Not to assuage the Academy’s white guilt. But because this is, by far, a most excellent film.

  • attica says:

    This movie was well-cast across the board. I was impressed with how much James looks like the young John Lewis, sure, but he did such a good job in that role. Oyelowo (who was Danny in Spooks, fer cryin' in the mud!) was revelatory in his subtlety. I liked Roth the least, not because he did a bad job but because he lacked the sweaty flat-faced smugness of the real Wallace. And Lorraine Toussaint! Rocking those cat's-eye glasses like a boss.

  • Ejogo also played Coretta Scott King in another movie, the made-for-HBO BOYCOTT, with Jeffrey Wright as King doing the time of Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts, and did a good job there to. I also liked this movie a lot, and am also puzzled about the accusations it's been getting.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Yeah, I haven't even been following that because it's so…weird. What's the alleged issue? That it's mean to LBJ or something?

  • sam says:

    Basically, some old-time LBJ staffers started a not-so-whisper campaign (i.e., editorials in the Washington Post) about how the movie deserved to be completely shunned and ineligible for nominations because it portrayed LBJ as the "bad guy".

    And they said completely ridiculous things like "Selma was actually LBJ's idea". which…no.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Oh, come on. Hard to believe that got any traction.

  • Erin W says:

    I didn't get the LBJ controversy at all. The Pop Culture Happy Hour crew had a pretty good discussion about it, about how it has to be hard for people who were literally there to see something that's been streamlined on screen and say, "But–but–but–wrong!"

    Still, almost the first thing LBJ says to King in the movie is that he just passed the Civil Rights Act, and that's a win for them, and now LBJ has to spend the next year focusing on other things, including Vietnam. Tonkin Gulf had just happened. I feel like every scene with LBJ needs to be watched with that context in mind: Vietnam is happening RIGHT NOW. He's really truly got a lot on his plate as president.

    But then King and his colleagues are also right, that the injustices going on cannot just be laid aside because people are busy. That was the thing I liked best about Selma: that it was full of debates where both sides made legitimate, convincing points.

  • Sandman says:

    Ejogo is really remarkable. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. It's a great cast altogether. So much love for Lorraine Toussaint!

    But does Tim Roth ever play anything other than the dead-eyed, scum-sucking horror? Okay, maybe in Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead.

  • Sandman says:

    Er. "Guildenstern," rather. (Who the hell is "Guilderstern"?)

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