FRESH POUR: Selma (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

dir. Ava DuVernay
Paramount Pictures

In a year that has been particularly trying for the representation and treatment of African-Americans in our society and culture (particularly the relationship between minorities and law enforcement), Selma is incredibly timely. A primarily black film about black issues directed by a black woman is already something that is too much of an anomaly to ignore, but it certainly helps that Selma is just as bold and confident as the compelling figure at its center. Depicting the Selma-to-Montgomery march and its surrounding events in 1965 chiefly through the lens of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), Selma is unapologetic in its politics and polemicism. Don’t confuse that for preachiness or unwarranted sentimentality – Ava DuVernay’s take on these incendiary, important historical events is dramatic, understated and fiercely passionate in all the right ways, playing the beats and rhythms of the biopic to full, innovative effect.

At the center of Selma is David Oyelowo’s fiercely passionate, layered portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Practicing in front of a mirror in the very first shot (the first of many; DuVernay likes to make sure you know that MLK’s watching),  Oyelowo’s deeply controlled performance contains all of the tics and histrionics we’ve seen of the man through historical accounts and recordings of his speeches, while injecting him with a vulnerability that makes his struggles to navigate the complex political pressures of the Civil Rights Movement all the more compelling. Having to play such diametrically opposed modes from scene to scene can often make performances feel bifurcated and limited, but Oyelowo’s sheer command of physicality – his immense stillness and resolute face – sells it immensely.

Just as civil rights is under fire in Selma, so too is MLK the man – his marriage is tested with accusations/tapes of infidelity sent by a slimy J. Edgar Hoover (staple 60s-government-guy supporting performer Dylan Baker), the troubled, complex alliance between himself and a somewhat obstructionist LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), and the sophisticated interplay between the motivations and needs of other factions within the Civil Rights Movement (from Malcolm X to the small group of civil rights leaders already in Selma, who feel steamrolled by MLK’s highly publicized movement). Ominous, typewritten reports of MLK and his movements act as impromptu location subtitles, cementing the FBI as a group utterly uninterested in helping and only in mitigating the Civil Rights Movement in order to keep it docile and peaceful (and, implicitly, controllable). The juxtaposition between a particularly powerful, uplifting civil rights speech in a Selma church and the FBI’s report (“inciting Negro churchgoers”) is a fascinating exploration of the way blackness is perceived as opposed to its realities.

Much as Selma is Oyelowo’s show through and through, the rest of the ensemble textures the setting well while never really taking center stage. I will say, it feels incredibly weird to see an almost exclusively British cast – Oyelowo, Wilkinson, Tim Roth as incendiary governor George Wallace (with the same Foghorn Leghorn drawl as Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) – depicting such major American figures in such proportion, but hey – when the cast is this good, it’s tough to criticize. Luckily, this story is far more artful and less treacly and sentimental than previous civil-rights treatments like Lee Daniels’ Lee Daniels’ The Butler, wherein black characters find a quiet dignity serving great white men Selma, instead, asserts itself as a film wherein African-Americans rightly seek their own dignity and justice.

Of particular interest (and controversy) is Wilkinson’s LBJ, a man torn between a political rock and a hard place. The film portrays him as someone sympathetic to the cause of civil rights, but definitely favors MLK as the more “harmless” face of the movement, with all the accompanying patriarchal gridlock that conveniently prevents him from having to take action. Wilkinson only really gets to growl and shuffle around the West Wing White House set while talking cautious to militantly anti-black government officials – still, this matches the out-of-touch nature of LBJ, who sees MLK’s urgency to march as political inconvenience rather than a burning need to improve the lives of Southern blacks as soon as possible. While he may seem more of a villain in the film than he allegedly was in reality, his role in Selma is key, representing the white power structure that ultimately held back the civil rights movement for fear of losing their own authority. Even when LBJ comes around by the end, you’re not wrong for feeling a little annoyed at his self-serving self-righteousness (though it’s still funny as hell when LBJ growls, “Are you shitting me, George Wallace?”).

In addition to its stellar cast, DuVernay’s direction and the confident, self-reflexive script by Paul Webb are perhaps Selma’s greatest strengths, hitting all of the typical ‘beats’ of the biopic with which we’re all irritatingly familiar, without making them seem overused or particularly clichéd (see: any Chadwick Boseman biopic). The scene where a weary MLK dials noted soul musician (and MLK’s favorite singer) Mahalia Jackson late at night to “hear the Lord’s voice” is an early highlight, giving us a subtle glimpse into the cracks forming in a man who, by necessity, has to seem immovable. Punctuating this calculation and sensitivity are scenes of horrifying violence, DuVernay slowing the horror of these proceedings to a crawl to hammer home their hellishness. The March to Montgomery, and the subsequent assault on the peaceful protest, is a jaw-dropping scene that mixes the slow pageantry of a torture scene with the stuttering documentary feel of contemporary newsreels, instilling just as much horror in the audience as the characters feel as they watch through television sets and phone booth windows.

Crisp in its presentation and endlessly sensitive to its protagonists, there’s a living, beating heart at the center of Selma – a revolutionary fire at its core that is unapologetic about its lyricism and agenda (nor should it). Searing with passionate energy and a desire to remind us that forgetting history dooms us to repeat it (the precredits song even mentioning “walking Ferguson with our hands up”), Selma is a tangible, respectful and deeply felt depiction of history. Realtalk: I’d love to see this film shown in history and social studies classrooms someday, and quite soon.

Drinking Rules for Selma:
1) Drink whenever MLK is given center frame, looking at the audience
2) Drink every time we see clandestine reporting on MLK from the FBI
3) Drink any time LBJ gives yet another excuse for not quite supporting the passing of the voting rights provision of the Civil Rights Act
Finish Your Drink When:
JLB incredulously says, “Are you shitting me, George Wallace?”

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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