Ava DuVernay David Oyelowo

Selma Review: Well Known Facts Made Suspenseful

Friday, January 16, 2015 Rob Samuelson


No doodle this week. There's not much to joke about here. This picture better be royalty free like it said.

Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Stephan James
Rating: Four and a half stars (out of five)

Martin Luther King, Jr., as depicted in Selma, is the master of the rope-a-dope. For all the high rhetoric and magnetic personality, his most effective quality is his ability to sustain punishment and squeak out a win in the end. It's a long game with him, a punch to the face here, an imprisonment there, near mutiny from his organization here, 24/7 FBI surveillance there. None of these portend good things for him, but he generally gets what he wants in the end – in this film's case, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, abolishing systematic racism in suppressing the black vote across the South.

None of these external pressures are anything in comparison to what goes on in his own head and the decisions he makes that often come perilously close to unraveling everything. That rope-a-dope skill seems so practiced when dealing with powerful institutions because it is. He deals with the struggle against himself at all times. Because Selma is not a biopic out to make him a saint, director Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo as King collaborate on a vision of him as mixed up, even neurotic at times. When he's not preaching to a crowd, that self confidence we know from history is gone. He's a mess of contradictions, doubt, even cruelty to those he loves and condescension, albeit well-meaning, to those who follow him. He openly speaks of his skepticism of the movement's eventual victory to his advisors and he takes his stress out of his wife in ways large – humiliating infidelity – and small – sniping at her for doing things, like meeting one-on-one with Malcolm X to strategize a way for everyone to benefit. But eventually, he convinces himself of his cause's veracity, he comes clean to his wife, Coretta, about the problems he has “done to himself,” and he persuades his followers his caution, initially seen as cowardice, was all to keep everyone safe from what looks like a trap to him. It's not clear from the film if he and Coretta ever fully recovered from the stresses of this period before his assassination a few years later, but given the evidence of how he operated in his dealings with the world's most powerful people and with his own mind, they probably at least came to an understanding and, hopefully, some regained trust.

But Selma is more than a literary movie about talking and internal struggles. It is a film of great craft with special attention paid to the art of suspense. That's likely not what one might expect from a picture depicting historical moments whose outcomes are known to the general public, but DuVernay is able to twist those screws nonetheless, albeit in subtle ways. A night march to commemorate King's release from an Alabama jail is lit like almost like a low-key version of the chase scene in The Third Man, and because it's a smaller detail in the grander story, its outcome for the marchers, none of whom are the large players in the grand historical narrative, becomes muddled. We know the Selma police are cognizant of the march and when they are dispatched to chase the protesters through the back alleys, we know something terrible is amiss. DuVernay lets the outcome unfold fairly slowly, with a steady rather than jittery camera – thank whatever or whomever you pray to she understands how to shoot action – and even gives a hopeful release before ratcheting up the tension again and finally exploding in violence. It's masterful filmmaking, and it follows throughout the movie. Another example is the first march across the bridge out of Selma. We know he will survive the events of this film, but his lieutenants and followers are less known to us, and King is not with them this time. A Sergio Leone-inspired moment follows, with long shots of opposing forces and eventual chaos that allows us to be fully invested in the visceral act of viewing movies rather than only focusing on the historical and mechanical nature of how things happened.

And that makes Selma a great film, turning the often lousy biopic genre on its head. It is important without hitting you over the head with its importance, of the moment and of the past, and it envelopes you in the magic of moviemaking in ways you don't expect from stories you're already familiar with.

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