Selma (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

film selma_smSince David Oyelowo is too much of a professional to let the seams show, he may not get the recognition her deserves.

 

 film selma

 

About two years ago I went through a Black Power phase, wherein I devoured all the books and movies by and about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, etc., I could get my hands on. (And yes, feel free to laugh at my going through a “Black Power phase” when, to paraphrase a line from Go, if I were any more white I’d be clear. Regardless, this important and hugely fascinating facet of modern American history wasn’t taught substantially in any school I ever went to, so I had to take matters into my own hands.) One thing that struck me as I was consuming all of the literature I could was that history seems to be favoring Malcolm X over Dr. King—or, rather, the memorable works of art seem more centered on Malcolm X, anyway. Meaning, for Malcolm X we have both Alex Haley’s incredible The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s strong biopic Malcolm X, but for Dr. King we have—well, the best thing I found was the compilation of his writings and speeches, A Testament of Hope, which is huge and inspiring, but also lacks the accessibility of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

But hey, now we finally finally have a good Dr. King film to point to in this regard: Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Selma isn’t an all-encompassing biographical picture as Malcolm X was; instead, it focuses only on events from late 1964 to early 1965, nearly all of which take place in Alabama, the vast majority in the titular city. Despite my formal education lacking significant study of the civil rights movement, Dr. King’s marches from Selma was something even I was taught, and the film Selma is smart in not insulting its audience’s intelligence; it assumes that you know more or less what is going on here, and doesn’t hold your hand and thereby feel like an overt history lesson. For example, we know that the FBI was keeping tabs on Dr. King’s movements; the film references this in using FBI dispatches to let you know where and when he is, but it doesn’t explain them any further than that, apart from a brief and insignificant appearance by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker).

Dr. King is played by David Oyelowo (who was the best thing about 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler; he played Forest Whitaker’s son, who at one point in that film was a Freedom Rider), in the type of performance that I fear will be overlooked: He’s very strong and has a great presence in the role, but since it doesn’t require him to do anything big and hammy—like, say, the lead performances in The Theory of Everything or Foxcatcher—and since Oyelowo is too much of a professional to let the seams show, he may not get the recognition her deserves.

Outside of Oyelowo, the film plays like a “who’s who” of our best and most recognizable black actors. Its big ensemble includes the likes of Tessa Thompson (who was so good as Sam White in Dear White People), Oprah Winfrey (who proved to any remaining doubters that she can act in the aforementioned The Butler), Keith Stanfield (Marcus from Short Term 12), Wendell Pierce (Bunk from The Wire), and the rapper Common, who’s a better actor than one might expect.

Last October, I interviewed Brandon Bell of Dear White People, who said, “Good art has a funny way of always being relevant.” I couldn’t agree more, and now feels like a great time for the world to have a film like Selma. (Stay through the end credits, during which a Common track plays, the lyrics of which namecheck Ferguson.) To put a finer point on it, though I wasn’t personally there, the first screening of Selma in St. Louis occurred at the Moolah in early December and was an invitation-only affair, with many leaders of Ferguson’s protests movement invited, and with Common in person to promote the film. During the screening—as in while the movie was actually up on the screen—the Eric Garner verdict came out, resulting in lots of people on cell phones rushing out of the theater. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to experience that. At the much more benign press screening I attended, I found the film to be well done and strong enough to bring me to the point of tears, making it the only 2014 release to do so. | Pete Timmermann

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