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‘Selma’: a must-see film of great importance

Published: January 16, 2015
Section: Arts, Etc.


Full, immediate disclosure: I cannot promise that this review will be utterly free of any white cisgender male privilege that I carry around with me because of my race and gender identity. As anyone will tell you, there is no way to completely leave these behind without ending in a position where I’d simply be pretending that such things did not exist. What I can promise is a trying lack of whitesplaining “Selma,” a film about a story that a lot of white people these days like to use as an excuse to ignore issues like systematic racism. “Selma” is about the people who accomplished amazing things in the chronicled events, and who they accomplished them for. And it is incredibly successful in doing so.

The film is, of course, about Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s organizing of massive demonstrations for African-American voting rights in Alabama in 1965. King’s request for federal intervention in Alabama had just been rebuked by Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), so he and his closest allies go to the deep South in order to fight the racist policies of Alabama’s then-governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). At the same time, King must deal with marital strife between him and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), pressure from LBJ to be more diplomatic and racist violence against him and his supporters. This leads to the planning and execution of the Selma marches, destined to become one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

One thing that I will not say about “Selma” is that it is a “great American movie.” Doing so only continues the tradition of appropriating African-American pain and erasing related self-determinate action very common in American culture. That said, “Selma” is still a great and important film, one that educates and honors the emotional and human cost of King’s work (another side note: I am not attempting to gain liberal brownie points. If I didn’t like this film I would say so). There are multiple scenes of King simply sitting in front of a television, alone, watching marchers be assaulted by Alabama police, and knowing that his choices are partly to blame for the blood being spilled. In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, King consoles the grandfather of a slain activist while promising victory in their cause. King understands that he cannot fully atone for the death, especially when he will soon court media attention for the movement.

Nearly every moment of “Selma” is laden with heavy emotion, stress and fear, yet it is not a melancholy movie. It is a serious one about serious things, but newcomer Ava DuVernay’s accomplished, subtle direction balances this with moments of humor and sweetness to lighten the mood when necessary. The film is also supported by an amazing cast, including an Oscar-worthy performance from Oyelowo as King, which is an interpretation rather than an imitation. Ejogo is also amazing as the supportive but concerned Coretta Scott King. Great supporting parts from Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint and Wilkinson round out the film with their performances.

Once again, I find myself without much else to say. “Selma” is dramatic, impeccably acted, very well directed, beautiful looking and as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. If nothing else, it is a harsh reminder to people who forget the weight of Civil Rights activists’ experiences simply because it took place so long ago. In a world where people are increasingly connected yet often choose to forget the complexities of the past, “Selma” is a movie that should be seen. It makes devils out of some but refuses any pedestals or shallow adulation of history. Rather, it tells an incredible story in an incredibly powerful way, and presents the ugliness of American history as it was and is. Before his tragic death, Roger Ebert often championed films like “Selma” as necessary stories that deserved to be seen. I cannot speak for the dead, but I would say Ebert would do the same for “Selma,” and rightly so. It’s a great movie, so go see it.