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Non-Review Review: Selma

Selma is a fascinating look at the Civil Rights Movement, and at the life and times of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior.

Adopting the increasingly common approach of narrowing its focus to a rather tight sequence of events, Selma offers an interesting and insightful glimpse at the protest in Selma, Alabama – culminating in a planned march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1964. That was a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights struggle, as the cameras of the nation focused on the brutally wielded by local authorities against those marching peaceably. Selma focuses on that national moments as a vehicle to explore the Civil Rights movement as a whole.

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To be fair, Selma does have its problems. There is a sense that the film is perhaps too concerned with the character of Lyndon B. Johnson, even ultimately affording him something of a heroic moment at the climax. The carefully-maintained period feel is undermined by the decision to dub Yesterday Was Hard On All Of Us by Fink over a crucial moment. In contrast, the period-specific (or close enough) songs by Otis Redding, the Impressions or Duane Eddy add context and texture to the film; the tracks by The Fink and Common (featuring John Legend) feel superficial.

However, these are minor problems. Selma features a tight script, solid direction and a host of fantastic central performances. Eschewing the sentimentality or softness associated with these sorts of prestige pictures, Selma deserves to be considered among the best of the awards season prestige pictures. Its diminished presence on Academy Awards ballots seems sadly telling.

selma1The Civil Rights movement is a watershed moment in twentieth-century American history; it is a subject that has been broached and explored time and time again, through a multitude of different angles. At one point in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson wonders whether the difficulty enforcing basic human rights for African American citizens within the southern states might spark a second civil war. The march from Selma to Montegomery exposed the sort of brutality and violence that African Americans faced just trying to express themselves peacefully.

It is tempting to look back on the Civil Rights as a monolithic movement. After all, Martin Luther King towers over the movement. He worked with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson; in fact, a considerable portion of Selma is dedicated to the occasionally tense relationship between King and the Oval Office. King’s words spoke to an entire generation, bridging racial and class barriers. His promise that “we shall overcome” is visible both on badges stuck to the lapels of marchers and in Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech eventually endorsing the movement.

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And, yet, that tends to over-simplify matters. The Civil Rights movement was no more the vision of one man than any other great moment in history. Selma puts Martin Luther King front-and-centre, but not at the expense of nuance and depth. One of the more interesting aspects of Selma is that it foregrounds the conflicts and struggles that existed within the Civil Rights movements, the disagreements and arguments, the discord and strife. As much as Martin Luther King may have been the loudest voice arguing for equality, he was not the only voice.

A surprising amount of Selma is dedicated to exploring how Martin Luther King’s voice was just the loudest in a diverse ensemble all agitating for the same basic freedoms. When King arrives in Selma, he faces opposition not only from the white citizens, but also from student activists. They live in Selma, they have worked in Selma. For two years, they have tried to contribute to the fight; now Martin Luther King blows in from out of town and takes over. What happens when he leaves Selma? What becomes of the African American residents when his focus is elsewhere?

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At another point, Malcolm X visits while King is held incarcerated in the town jail. Malcolm X speaks to provoke the crowd and scare the establishment; he offers himself as a turbulent alternative to King. Indeed, King’s first meeting with Johnson has the President endorse King as the more reasonable voice within the Civil Rights movement. In a quiet conversation with Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X argues that this is the point; by raising an alternative to King, Malcolm X reinforces King’s position as the reasonable one; the one with whom the establishment can deal.

And yet, despite this, there is no love lost. King fumes and rages at the idea of Malcolm X stealing the spotlight while he is custody. King emphasises the work that his movement has done for African Americans, belittling Malcolm X’s contributions to the cause. “Our movement has changed lives,” King informs his wife. “What has he changed? Really changed?” Movements are not monolithic; they are not entities with singular minds and complete understanding. It is the nature of this sort of movement to spark disagreement; to argue over alternate paths to the promised land.

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However, this hits on the key strength of Selma. For most of its runtime, Selma is focused primarily on its African American characters. It jumps around between them, offering multiple accounts of the experience, suggesting that something like the Civil Rights movement cannot be reduced to a single unified experience. Cager Lee is an eighty-one-year-old man who wants to be heard at last. Annie Lee Cooper has tried time and time again to register her vote, only to be shut down by the system. John Lewis is a student trying to find the way forward.

Selma allows these characters to weave in and out of the narrative. They are seldom the true focus of the film, but their experience adds a texture and diversity of experience that only helps Selma. David Oyelowo is masterful as King, and the film is wise enough to allow him space; there is no need for King to dominate every frame of Selma. He is the focus point when present, but Selma acknowledges that King may have spoken for the movement he led, but he was not its entirety.

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That said, Selma runs into trouble with the character of Lyndon B. Johnson. The President was always going to be a major player in the drama, but Selma returns to him a little too often. Initially, the movie is quite scathing and critical of Johnson’s reluctance to act, but the movie seems to check back in with him with too much regularity. More than that, Selma allows Johnson the biggest moment at the climax, addressing the legislature and seemingly tying the plot up in a tidy little bow.

Indeed, it seems like it is a conversation between Lyndon B. Johnson and George Wallace that ultimately resolves the issue. In confronting Wallace, Johnson decides to act to defuse the incredibly tense situation. The movie retains some sense of ambiguity; Johnson is manipulated through his sense of legacy rather than decency, and the movie emphasises that he openly cribbed from King for his big rhetorical moment. Nevertheless, it feels like the movie is not quite willing to commit to an entirely subversive portrayal of Johnson, despite setting it up.

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There are also moments that feel a little overly sentimental. These are few and far between, but they are there. Selma does a good job of trying to capture the horror and the brutality of the status quo in Alabama. The recreation of the attack on the protesters is striking for its brutality. Attacks on members of the movement are not necessarily signposted, coming at quiet moments following the triumphs. Not everything is fixed immediately. Selma is quite candid about the horrors it documents.

The sequence where leaders of the Civil Rights movement list out the injustices blocking African Americans from voting is all the more effective for the way that they seem to accept it as fact; it is such a fact of life that the rightful anger and outrage at these particular injustices is largely spent. However, the decision to use contemporary music at the climax feels a little forced, a little obvious, a little cheap. The use of archive footage is commendable and effective, but the modern music selections from The Fink and Common (featuring John Legend) jar somewhat.

Still, these are ultimately minor quibbles. Selma is a very powerful and striking piece of prestige cinema, one made particularly well. As far as “prestige” cinema goes, it sits head-and-shoulders above some of the contenders for the Best Picture Oscar, and deserving of several other nominations.

3 Responses

  1. Good review

  2. Reblogged this on tboyk.

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