Sunday, 8 February 2015

Movie Review: Selma (2015)

It forms a lump of coal in my stomach to admit this, but we live in a world where statements like this still need to be said: There are very few things in this world uglier than racism. The actions people will commit under the flag of protecting one’s own ethnicity against all others can enter into the truly stomach-churning and, while we have definitely made some progress beyond our past actions, such things are still an open wound for most nations if not all. However, it is a common thought in the creative world that our darkest moments can give birth to our brightest works of art. In the last few years, especially during Oscar season, we’ve gotten the lion’s share of film exploring racial themes: 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, not to mention the numerous war movies set in World War II like Fury and The Monuments Men; most of which are well-done or at the very least well-intentioned. Given how today’s film falls along similar lines, let’s see just how bright this turns out if at all; this is Selma.

The plot: Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is an activist fighting for the right of African Americans to vote, setting up a march from the Alabama town of Selma to the state capital of Montgomery to further the cause. With Governor Wallace (Tim Roth) doing all he can to stop him, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) being non-committal in helping him and racists threatening him, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and his children, King is determined to carry out his plan while still holding true to his stance of non-violence.

Dr. King might well be one of the charismatic leaders in American history, if not the world, so the actor chosen to play him would have to be able to imbue the role with the strength and presence needed to sell it. Enter David Oyelowo, who fills those shoes like they were tailored just for him. If I was to gauge my expectations of his performance on the last role I saw him in, which was as Louis Gaines in the well-acted but heavy-handed The Butler, I would have been gearing myself up for disappointment. However, when Oyelowo is giving his many speeches on screen, you easily buy that this is a man who could and did lead thousands of people on those marches. The film is, admittedly, hurt by the fact that the studios didn’t have the rights to any of Dr. King’s historical speeches, so unfortunately we don’t get to hear Oyelowo talking about his dreams. However, Ava DuVernay did a great job at crafting speeches for him that carry on with the soul of Dr. King’s originals and, while they may not be as stirring as the real thing, they are just that good that they don’t need to be. Hearing Oyelowo shouting to his audiences with the passion, intensity and emotional resonance that he does here, fulfilling his role as a preacher without being preachy, it lights that fire in the belly like only truly great orators can.

It doesn’t hurt that Oyelowo is assisted by a decent supporting cast. Tom Wilkinson, regardless of the historical discrepancies surrounding how he is written here, does well at portraying the political tightrope his character has to walk whilst having great on-screen chemistry with King. Carmen Ejogo is written as the supportive wife here, admittedly, but she handles her dialogue well in showing her support for King’s work but also her worry over the threats that are resulting from it. Tim Roth is seriously good in his role, perhaps a little too good as he creates a portrait of a properly despicable bigot that hides behind deflecting his responsibilities. He is a lot like Kevin Sorbo in God’s Not Dead in his ability to create disgust in the viewer, and I mean that as a compliment; as bad as that movie was, Kevin Sorbo did well with the strawman caricature he was given. It helps that Wallace isn’t written solely as a cardboard target and Roth never plays him as such, but that itself is both a good and a bad thing: good, because the role is made believable through both the dialogue he’s given and the performance he gives; bad, because the reason why the dialogue is believable is that it echoes a few too many sentiments that are still being said today. Nevertheless, he is a great antagonist here and the fact that all four of these actors are British isn’t even noticeable as they each have the convincing accents down pat. Of course, there’s also the rather uncomfortable feeling that comes with the mostly-black cast here; how often do we actually get to see this many black actors in a single movie nowadays?

Given how Brad Pitt is listed as an executive producer and Oprah Winfrey is part of the supporting cast, I was initially expecting this to descend into either soul-crushing but empty morbidity like 12 Years A Slave or heavy-handed mediocrity like The Butler. Thankfully, this is another one of those times where my pig-headed pessimism is proven wrong. The racial themes explored in the writing have an arc and purpose behind them aside from simply showing scenes of racist (and often self-destructive) behaviour. This is helped by the wise move to isolate the film’s plot to just one pivotal event, rather than trying to provide an overview of all of Martin Luther King’s actions which could have left the film feeling bloated and/or rushed. Instead, the film is given the opportunity to take its time, build up the sufficient pathos for the events that take place and, by film’s end, leave the audience on a satisfactory and triumphant note. The racist acts we see on screen, like the police brutality of the Bloody Monday march, are unpleasant to put it sickeningly mildly but they are at least leading to something and a very poignant something at that. Given the current racial and political climate, specifically in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, this film’s message couldn’t have been better timed.

The soundtrack here fits perfectly with the action on screen, and you know it has to be good when this is one of the few reviews where I’m actually taking time out to mention it at all. While it does go for the Oscar-standard orchestral swells during some dramatic moments, the music mostly sticks to more folk and bluesy numbers that add greatly to both the setting and the tone of the film. And then there’s Glory by Common and John Legend, which not only highlights how timely this film’s release is but also multiplies the conquering tone of the story through Legend’s piano-driven instrumentation and Common’s socially conscious lyricism that he has built a very stable reputation for.

All in all, this isn’t simply a good film. Don’t get me wrong, it most certainly is a good film given its strong cast lead by a commanding David Oyelowo, powerful writing and great soundtrack, but this gives the feeling not just of quality but of actual importance. This isn’t a film along the lines of 12 Years where the bleak tone chokes the life out of what works about it; this has a more triumphant note, showing the actions of a man who wanted his people to be heard as equally as all others. It ranks higher than Still Alice, as the excellent lead performance here is bolstered by better writing, but it falls short of Wild, where the production took more risks and made for a more stimulating experience. This is a must-watch, no doubt about it.

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