Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Alternate Title:  Hail to the King

One sentence synopsis:    Martin Luther King organizes the Selma-to-Montgomery marches as part of the civil rights movement in 1965.

Things Havoc liked:  It's a dangerous business, trying to produce a movie about a figure like Martin Luther King. Everything you do with a character like that will be scrutinized like a biblical text, subject not only to criticism regarding the artistic and structural choices made, but in the lens and context of contemporary politics as well. It's not quite true that King is a polarizing figure, but he is certainly a venerated one, and as purified saints make for bad biopic targets, attempts to humanize someone like King are fraught with peril, opening one up to accusations of bias, racism, or grievous disrespect. Particularly given the ongoing relevance of civil rights and race-related issues today, this was a film that had to walk a tightrope. Too daring, and the filmmakers would be fricasseed. Not daring enough, and the movie would suck. What is a young, up-and-coming filmmaker to do?

I know, let's cast the guy who starred in Red Tails!

For someone who helmed the worst movie by score in the history of this project, David Oyelowo has done pretty well for himself in the intervening years. Roles in Lincoln and Middle of Nowhere as well as a turn in The Butler that I was quite a big fan of, a role in which he rather co-incidentally shared the screen with someone else playing Martin Luther King, have softened my hatred regarding his participation in the above travesty. That's not to say I would have picked him as the actor to represent King, but I'll be damned if he didn't sell me. King, moreso than many other historical figures, could only be fantastically difficult to portray, but Oyelowo does a fantastic job by refusing to get histrionic, not even during the sweeping speeches which are a must-have in any MLK film. It admittedly took some time for me to accept Oyelowo's speechifying as worthy of one of the great orators of the 20th century, but by the end of the film, Oyelowo managed to capture even that aspect, to say nothing of the calm patience with which he approaches the task of destroying one of the cornerstones of Jim Crow.

Yet the focus is not on grand speeches or high-minded ideals, for the film quite rightly infers that the audience is capable of understanding that arbitrarily denying voting rights to black voters is a bad thing without having to have it shoved down their throats. In consequence, the movie concentrates instead on the actual down-and-dirty methods by which these things were to be combated. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King's reluctant ally in the fight against segregation, has a hundred items on his agenda, and in order to push this one to the top, King and his associates employ every trick in the political handbook. Marches and "awareness" are only half the battle here, as, like Lincoln before it, Selma prefers to concentrate on the... grittier side of getting politics done. In an early scene, King admits openly that he has selected Selma as the next battleground because the local sheriff is an irascible bastard, who can be counted upon to lose his cool and engage in violent suppression of the demonstrators, thus pushing the agenda further than it would otherwise go. Neither he nor his crew of like-minded activists are even slightly ashamed by these tactics, and nor should they be, for confrontation is the cornerstone of their movement, not sermons from the mount. The mechanics of how King goes about provoking the authorities to respond, and the responses that he generates form the meat of the film, and as with Lincoln, the result is to ground the film in what actually happened, instead of in platitudes about being nice to one another.

And it helps to have a useful cast when one is making one of these solemn biopics, and for this film, director Ava DuVernay has assembled a murderer's row of excellent character actors. Wilkinson I mentioned before, but his turn as the profane, frazzled, beleaguered LBJ, who agrees with King but has other priorities and does not appreciate being dragged back into King's agenda, is probably the best in the film, with a close second being Tim Roth's turn as Alabama governor (and scumbag) George Wallace, a man who oozes contempt from every pore without ever once uttering a word edgewise against King or his movement. Other roles go to solid B-listers such as Lorraine Toussaint, Dylan Baker, The Judge's Jeremy Strong (who may one day find forgiveness), and of course, two actors who cannot be left out of any movie like this, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom were in the Butler alongside Oyelowo. Winfrey in particular deserves a mention, playing Annie Lee Cooper, a local activist best known for responding to a sheriff prodding her in the neck with a billy club by belting him in the face. Mock Winfrey's work all you will, since the Color Purple she has made a habit of movies like this one, and as with the Butler, she does a fantastic job of disguising herself behind makeup and getting the hell beat out of her by disgusting racists. Everyone needs a hobby I guess.

Things Havoc disliked:  Realistic this film most certainly is, and yet realism is a poor substitute for drama when it comes down to it, and Selma is rather unavoidably a very slow film, as characters ponder over their actions, re-think things, discuss strategy at length to one another, hesitate, turn back, try again, consult, and only then finally move forward with anything. It's probably close to how things actually ran, but real life is a long and boring process, and we're not watching a documentary. One gets the sense, as the film goes on, that it perhaps has too great a sense of its historical weight, expecting that merely gesturing in the direction of events that occurred and trusting that the audience will understand the importance of them would forgive any pacing problems that the movie might manifest. Unfortunately the importance of the march is not well placed in context of the wider movement. I know it as merely one of many steps taken to break the back of segregation in the South, but which step it was and in response to what pressures it was taken, I cannot tell you, as the movie regards it as a single event that began and ended, with no wider context to distinguish it except that it was a thing that Martin Luther King did. To compare the film to Lincoln once more, Lincoln spared no expense in grounding the struggle to pass the 13th amendment within the context of the end of the Civil War, ensuring we knew why it was so important. Here, one may be forgiven for wondering if Johnson, who urges focus on other priorities instead of on this issue, might have been right, as we have no idea what else was going on except that the South was racist and King fought them.

And speaking of Johnson, much ink has been spilled over the subject of his portrayal in this film, where at times he seems almost like King's enemy, asking FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to send evidence of King's various infidelities to his wife as a means of cooling his ardor. To put it mildly, that never happened, and while I understand why it's in the film (there needed to be some way to introduce the subject of FBI opposition and of King's extramarital affairs into the story), the base fact is that a historical biopic is going to be judged on its fidelity to history. No, I don't think this is a crippling issue, as Johnson overall is portrayed quite well, ending the film with his famous speech to Congress on the eve of the Voting Rights Act, in which he quoted King directly while shattering the very spine of segregation. But the filmmakers' reactions of outraged horror that their film should be subject to such mundane things as "accuracy" do them no favors, as I cannot for the life of me understand someone making a film like this who did not expect people to pour over it with a microscope. This is history, and we all can find out what actually happened. Do not tell me that we should all "get over it" when the very purpose of the film is to show how much we have not gotten over the subject at hand.

Besides, Reverend Abernathy's defenders have a far better reason to get pissed here than President Johnson's...

Final thoughts:   With the Oscar nominations for 2014 now released, there has been the usual buzz of outrage over which films were and were not nominated for which categories, and of all the movies on offer, Selma is the one everyone is discussing being "snubbed". Much though I did like the film, permit me to disagree as to its deserving of further nominations. Oyelowo's performance is quite good, but only just that, and he never reaches the transcendent state of divine madness that a number of other nominees reached in quest for their nods (Keaton comes to mind), while director DuVernay's competant-but-uninspired directing of the film is worthy of praise, but not of Oscar praise, not in a year that brought us Linklater's Boyhood and Iñárritu's Birdman. DuVernay has additionally done herself no favors by insisting that criticism of her film is tantamount to a slap in the face to black people in general and to the NAACP in specific. Lest I sound like I am repeating myself, the rightness of a subject matter does not immunize a film from criticism, as films as varied as Red Tails, Monuments Men, and Jakob the Liar have all contrived to demonstrate. Selma is a good film, a film worth watching, a film that has value and that I am glad I saw, but none of those things equate to automatic greatness, particularly when you combine them all with the simple prosaic fact that Paramount released this film far too late in the game for most of the academy voting staff to have even seen it.

I recommend Selma unhesitatingly. But best-of-the-year honors are demanding things. And there's a reason my rating system goes to 10.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  New York's glory days.

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