the story: Martin Luther King Jr. prepares his historic march for voting rights in Alabama.
what it's all about: I think in hindsight, Selma is where the culture truly started to fracture. Selma is far more about the budding Black Lives Matter movement, the politicization of it, than MLK's march. It's somewhat clear that that's the whole reason the movie was made at all, and why critics lined up to state how great and timely it was. To state this is not to say BLM is meritless, but to say that as a matter of civil discourse, such a cultural response to a film, and the cultural divide it helped spark, is far more damaging than anything MLK confronted, and is in fact why BLM exists at all, why MLK's actions seem to have amounted to nothing but an annual holiday. It doesn't even seem to matter that the march spurred exactly the results MLK wanted. For committed activists, results don't matter. For such people, it becomes about social revolt.
Ironically, there's a moment in Selma where Malcolm X, shortly before his assassination, has finally stepped from out of the shadow of such reasoning, and MLK struggles to believe it.
No, Selma is not worth the hype. It's worth a look as a glimpse, of the times it reflects, even as a reflection of the times in which it was made. But it is not good filmmaking. MLK himself is not even the central figure. The central figure of this movie is simmering rage, which again, reflects not the story itself but what director Ava DuVernay is really talking about, in intentionally incendiary ways. It's a tone poem, of sorts, to further stoke the flames of social division. And not much more.
The worst thing about it is the second-most lauded thing about it, the performance of David Oyelowo as MLK. If this had been a movie about Frederick Douglass, there wouldn't be much of a problem with his performance. Douglass has been lost to history as a person. As a champion of black rights, he remains as well-known as he ever was, but all we have are photographs. This was long before the advent of film, of recorded voices. But the same is not true of MLK. Everyone who knows MLK knows what he sounded like. We certainly know what he looked like. DuVernay chose an actor who looks nothing like MLK, and who chose to sound nothing like MLK. He may turn in a competent performance, but Oyelowo seems to have chosen to dismiss the source material as much as DuVernay herself. These are two fundamental strikes against the quality of the production.
Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, they both turn in Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth performances, as Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace, respectively. What I mean is, they look and sound like Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth. It's a pattern. DuVernay has no interest at all in anything but her metaphor. Wilkinson is Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, too, in John Adams, but again, it doesn't matter as much in John Adams, because we definitely retain no cultural memory of Benjamin Franklin as a person. LBJ, meanwhile, was certainly a Texan, and by most accounts a lot like Trump, with a lot more sympathetic coverage, an abrasive personality. But yeah, with a Texas accent. Which Wilkinson does not give LBJ.
And yet, DuVernay, and Oyelowo, and Selma itself were almost uniformly called great. How again?
There's very little art to it at all. The movie begins with MLK already declared a cultural hero. There's token reference to his personal failings, but mostly to represent his struggle with LBJ. The only real complaints about the film are in fact about LBJ, how DuVernay depicts him almost exclusively as a villain. Although really, his actions are little different than Lincoln's leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, even as depicted. It may be worth noting that Douglass eventually decided Lincoln was less the hero than history has since decided. The first demagogue lost for perspective in this struggle, perhaps.
Oprah Winfrey appears as a token representative of the struggle MLK is working against, voting rights. She's depicted saintly, of course, until the movie thinks it can get away with her lashing out. About the one performance that's just about what it needs to be comes from Cuba Gooding Jr., once (and once) a critical darling. He appears as a lawyer. If Selma is so tepid about actually featuring MLK, it could easily have given Gooding an expanded role.
The biggest irony of all this is that none of this, in any other context, would merit such a harsh review. If this had been made, say, in the early '90s, like Spike Lee's far superior Malcolm X, it might be different. Although there was considerable civil unrest then, too, it hadn't yet been politicized, turned into a permanent wedge in society. There was still a chance, even with the once militant figure in Lee's movie, to look for common ground, a positive rallying point. Films had come a long way from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the tepid Sidney Poitier breakthrough icebreaker in which a black man merely asks to be accepted by a single family. Now we get a satire like Get Out, in the current climate. Coincidence?
Of course, if it had been made then, it would've been for TV, and been little noted.
There are better movies to try and heal old wounds with. But now we seem to get only ones that want to rub salt into them. Selma, alas, the first movie to significantly feature MLK, is one of them. Never really thought I'd see the day. Much less with Martin Luther King Jr., of all people.
As a reflection of the times in which it was made, Selma is a useful mirror. As filmmaking, it's junk.