Ava DuVernay‘s Selma, which had its first hotshot media screening last night at 6 pm, is a better-than-decent drama in…well, some respects. It has human-scale currents (compassion, moral vision, racism, cowardice, bureaucratic cynicism and brutality). DuVernay does a fair-to-decent job of re-creating the fire and the pain of the Alabama voting-rights protests of 1965, although I’m more of a fan of the “Bridge to Freedom” segment in Eyes on the Prize, the PBS doc that first aired in ’87, than I am of Selma. And yes, David Oyelowo does a reasonably good job of bringing Martin Luther King back to life, although I have to say he doesn’t quite capture King’s wonderfully melodious voice or the soaring oratorical spirit of his speeches.
Last night’s response tells us Selma is going to get lots of knee-jerk love from journalists and politically-correct lefties who swooned over Lee Daniels’ The Butler (a decent, so-so film) and 12 Years A Slave (a masterpiece) because their socially progressive instincts told them to. Selma, after all, is about the struggle by the Rev. King and his followers to demonstrate in racist Alabama for voting rights — a hard, punishing crusade that ultimately led to President Lyndon Johnson pushing for and then signing the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. If you can’t stand up for a film like this then where is your liberal soul?
So this is a good story about a noble and courageous effort, and so to pan this film, which was produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt‘s Plan B productions, or to complain about parts of it, is not cool. Who wants to stand outside the circle of liberal camaraderie as far as this film is concerned? Not me, brother. It’s easier to get with the program, applaud each other for being generous of heart and enlightened enough to look past Selma‘s shortcomings and celebrate its social-historical virtues, which are genuine and tangible.
Well, I’m sorry but my integrity is getting in the way of that. Because the good stuff aside, Selma struck me (and it may strike others) as slow and ponderous. 80% of it is about grim-faced people (mostly the good guys) strategizing about what to do or not do in order to achieve (or block) the goals of the voting-rights movement — glacially-paced dialogue spoken in living rooms, dining rooms, the Oval office, hotel lobbies, etc. Solemn as shit and slow as molasses.
I don’t mean to sound like a nitpicking asshole but the film struck me as a bit too convinced of its righteousness, a little more self-regarding than it needs to be, and not just taken with the historic importance of the voting-rights struggle but also the fact that DuVernay directed it for the right reasons and that Winfrey and Plan B produced it.
And visually it’s often a dark, under-lighted bore. The blame for this falls on the shoulders of Bradford Young (whose work on A Most Violent Year is exactly right). Half of Selma‘s indoor scenes are shot like Clint Eastwood‘s Bird, which looked like someone forgot to pay the electric bill, or so Pauline Kael once complained.
If Paul Greengrass had directed Selma (and if he’d had it rewritten by someone on his level), it would be a whole different equation. DuVernay, bless her, is just not that invested in live-wire visuals and fast-flash editing. And I’m saying this as one who slightly knows and likes her personally and who greatly admired Middle of Nowhere (’12) which, truth be told, I described in my rave as “perhaps a bit too slowly paced for some, perhaps a shade too plodding.”
There are good, sometimes arresting scenes in Selma — the “Bloody Sunday” scene (i.e., black demonstrators attacked by police on Selma’s Edward Pettus Bridge), an infidelity-discussing moment between MLK and Coretta Scott King, the scene in which Oprah Winfrey‘s character is beaten and knocked down, the big finale in front of the Montgomery state house, a scene between LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) and Governor George Wallace that is pretty much taken verbatim from a White House tape transcript (“Now don’t you shit me, George!”).
I don’t honestly see Selma becoming a Best Picture contender, although it’s possible. If people want something to happen, it’ll happen. I’m guessing that the above-described liberal sentiments will lead to Oyelowo possibly getting Best Actor-nominated…we’ll see. As I said, I think the performance is better than a good try but not as masterful as I wanted. He sounds like King but not in a way that anyone would call astonishing. The tonalities are close but not close enough.