Scott F. Evans
Ava DuVernay’s Selma takes us back to a pivotal point in American History, with the dramatic retelling of the events surrounding the 1965 Voter’s Rights marches. Surprisingly, Selma is the first time we’ve seen Martin Luther King’s efforts dramatized in a theatrically released feature film. There was a television miniseries and a made-for-cable film, but Selma marks the era’s big screen debut. Director DuVernay and first time screenwriter Paul Webb wisely avoid the trap of attempting to cram all of MLK’s life into the film’s just over two hour run time. Instead, they focus solely on the Selma marches.
Selma is DuVernay’s first big canvas film. Her first two films (I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere) were small, almost claustrophobic relationship dramas. Although micro-budgeted by Hollywood standards, Selma never betrays its modest funding. DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young make Selma look like it has three times the paltry $20 million dollar production budget. Young’s work is both beautiful and frustrating. He enjoys using natural light sources and sometimes this creates stunning pictures. But other times it can be frustrating when we lose details in several underlit scenes. The film won’t dazzle you with garish cinematic flourishes, but it doesn’t look like a TV movie either. Selma falls right in the middle, working more as a procedural and docudrama than a traditional biopic.
And that’s my main problem with Selma. First time screenwriter Paul Webb crafts a script that reduces the players to ideological representatives. We don’t really get to know any of the characters outside of their historical significance. Much of his dialogue sounds stilted like oration or rhetoric, not real conversation. It’s almost as if he was intimidated by the greatness of these people and refused to let them actually talk to one another, choosing instead to lift passages from history books and re-purpose them into dialogue. There’s a scene where Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) meets with Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo) and his lines all sound like soundbites from his speeches.
Unfortunately, Webb’s stilted script also affects the performances. David Oyelowo is strong as King, almost disappearing into the role. He nails King’s oratorical style of speaking but because the script never really fleshes him out, sometimes it feels like an affectation. He’s allowed a moment or two of levity with fellow civil rights workers Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), James Bevel (Common), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). There are even a couple of tension filled scenes Coretta, but we never get to know him. As good as Oyelowo is, King feels detached in the film, relegated to iconography. He’s troubled and nearly morose for much of the film. And though this may be an accurate depiction of where King was at the time, it makes for a somewhat one note performance in a film.
DuVernay utilizes her impressive supporting cast to their fullest potential. She deftly places relative newcomers alongside more seasoned veterans to great effect, helping to ground Selma in a realism many Hollywood bios miss. Even overly familiar faces like Oprah Winfrey and Common blend perfectly into the setting, becoming actual characters instead of casting gimmicks. Tom Wilkinson is another perfect example of this. He puts in solid work as Lyndon Johnson, delivering all of the Texas president’s legendary bluster. The script is a bit more generous with him, as we see him struggle with what’s right and what’s politically expedient.
Despite some of my reservations, I think that Selma is a solid film. Webb’s pedantic script keeps it from greatness, but DuVernay’s proficient direction prevents it from sliding into total hagiography. It’s the film that Lee Daniels’ The Butler wanted to be. Selma has a point of view with a strong, active protagonist and doesn’t try to pacify the viewer with phony, feel-good emotions. It’s strong and substantial. It needed to be made and is still absolutely relevant. Selma should be essential viewing for young people, particularly those with cavalier attitudes about voting.