Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie with Abe: Selma

Directed by Ava DuVernay
Released December 25, 2014

There’s nothing more relevant than a film about events in the past whose message rings far too true today. “Selma” takes place in 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) organized a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama to get voting restrictions lifted and legislation passed to ensure that African-Americans would not be prevented from exercising their new legal rights. Watching mobs and police officers beat and even kill defenseless black people with only King to act as a surrogate conscience for the audience makes this a powerful and extremely important film that is most definitely of the moment.

This film is wisely not called “Martin” or “King,” instead referencing an isolated location and event that was one of the focal points of King’s illustrious career as a civil rights champion and crusader. Like “Lincoln,” this is not a comprehensive biography but rather a snapshot of a short period of time, a defining act that serves as one of the things for which he is most remembered. Though many know Selma and what happened there, it is still jarring and stirring to see the unchecked brutality with which the law in Selma and Alabama responded to a nonviolent protest and the failure of the state or national administration to do anything to protect them.

King is introduced as an established figure, needing no back story or offscreen hardship to make him into a complex character. Instead, he wears his struggle on his face and his passion comes out when he takes the stage to deliver an energizing sermon about what he believes in. This film depicts a personal adversarial relationship between King and United States President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) where King repeatedly asked Johnson for help with the causes he supported and was told rather directly that it was not the White House’s priority. That dynamic may be accurate, but framing the film with the two as players in such close contact makes its universe seem a bit too narrow.

Fortunately, the film has a number of searing scenes that starkly and unforgettably depict the horrific violence exacted upon those united in protest in the South, including white supporters, and the apathy of those without a vested interest in the situation. These images will remind audiences of recent occurrences throughout the country that seem like they had to have happened in a more ignorant time. In the cast, Wilkinson and Tim Roth, as Alabama Governor George Wallace, portray people depicted as unapologetically political and determined to see their priorities achieved. Carmen Egojo, Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Alessandro Nivola, and Wendell Pierce all add to a strong ensemble, and this film is carried firmly by Oyelowo, a talented British actor who has been working for years and is finally starting to get mainstream international roles. This may not be the whole Martin Luther King, Jr. story, but, for now, it certainly is the definitive one, and an effective one at that.


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