Sunday, January 18, 2015

Family Movie Night: Selma

Title: Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay
Original Release: 2014
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Selma tells the tale of the 1965 civil rights struggle over voting rights in Selma, Alabama, a fitting Family Movie Night choice for Martin Luther King Day Weekend.  The big news about the film this past week was its snub by the Academy Awards, garnering only two nominations: Best Picture and Best Original Song.  I have a feeling, though, that over the long term this movie will be remembered and revisited.  Mind you, I'll still be rooting like crazy for Boyhood (review here) on Oscar night but Selma deserves far better than two nominations.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) is, of course, the film's central figure.  Without a doubt, King is one of the most extraordinary leaders in American history.  I was a little worried in the beginning that hero worship - a potential pitfall for any biographical work - might interfere with an honest portrayal.  But Selma frames King as a multi-dimensional human being: political titan, certainly, but also husband (and not always a faithful one), father and minister.  In one of the most powerful scenes, King comforts the father of a young protester killed by a state trooper with simple words: "God was the first to cry for your boy."

King's exceptional oratorical skill stemmed largely from a powerful voice and an instinct for cadence but he should also be remembered as an amazing writer.  If Selma has a flaw, it is the fact that King's speeches had to be rewritten.  To be fair, this is not the filmmakers' fault.  DreamWorks and Warner Bros. own the license to the originals for an untitled Spielberg project.  King's life was overdue as a subject for a major film.  If Spielberg is working on one, too, Selma has set a very high bar.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • The movie's violence is certainly brutal but it could have been a lot worse.  Mississippi Burning, for instance, is a far more terrifying film.  I think Selma did a nice job of balancing between horror and hope in the civil rights movement.
  • There is some language - the Purple Penguin counted two f-bombs from LBJ, a modest total in light of the man's well-documented reputation.
  • Our daughter is eleven years old which I worried was a little on the young side.  But it occurred to me afterwards that I was taken to see both The Chosen and Gandhi when I was nine.  Those movies were my introductions to the Holocaust and Indian independence respectively.  Both are at least as upsetting as Selma.  Film is as good a medium as any to learn of the evil humans can exact upon one another.

25 comments:

  1. For a noted historical figure from the multimedia age, his voice is well-known. The actor doesn't seem to have captured it at all, from what I heard in the trailer. It's great that there's at least one movie based on MLK now, but...I don't know...it just seems as if a better one is primed to be made by other filmmakers. I wasn't impressed with what I've heard of Daniel Day-Lewis's Lincoln (I think the actor is somewhat vastly overrated), but if Spielberg makes his version, it has to be considered, somewhat automatically, as more significant. That may be what, for instance, the Academy is thinking.

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    1. I caution you against judging before you've seen it. For starters, portraying an historic figure whose voice and bearing is a well-established part of American culture can't be easy. Oyelowo's performance is outstanding.

      I also must unequivocally disagree with a Spielberg movie being automatically more significant. It will have a bigger budget and wider publicity but that will do nothing to assure that it's actually a superior film. That Selma was expertly crafted by an African-American woman born four years after King died is highly significant, indeed.

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    2. I'm comparing it first to Malcolm X, and it doesn't seem to compare favorably to that. (In a perfect world, Spike Lee would have made a MLK movie. Or any movie at all these days.) As far as the history and complexity of MLK as a person, I know that already, so that alone wouldn't be so outstanding a reason to watch it, either. And from the trailer, I have to disagree that Oyelowo does a good job. He may be an excellent actor. But he seems absolutely wrong for this role.

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    3. Researching Lee, as I realized I should have before the parenthetical comment, shows he is indeed working. But he hasn't been a recognizable Spike Lee for years. Which is sad. The comment should most be construed to reflect my opinion that whatever else Selma has going for it, it comes a year after 12 Years a Slave. And I don't think Steve McQueen was as good a director as that project needed. No offense to Ava DuVerney, but I wonder if she's to McQueen's level. Who isn't to Lee's level. Who arguably isn't to Spielberg's level, or at least consistency, at least in terms of interest in historical scope, which is what MLK truly needs.

      I could be wrong. But to me, Selma does not look like a movie that demands to be seen.

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    4. Malcolm X is definitely better. For what it's worth, I'll take Spike Lee over Spielberg anytime. I'd love to see him make an MLK movie.

      There is plenty of room, of course, for all of those voices.

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    5. Yes, good movie, though I prefer the When We Were Kings documentary.

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  2. This is on our radar for DVD. I love the historical movies (I loved Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, too!).

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    1. I haven't seen Lincoln and I doubt we'll watch it. The wife has Spielberg issues.

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  3. hahahahahaha... I have Spielberg issues also, big time !
    I thought I was the only one !

    As for Selma I lived though this time. It was on the TV news everyday. I was 18 at the time but I think your daughter could watch this movie. Especially if you answer any questions.
    I will wait till the DVD comes out I really don't go out to movie that much especially during flu season. With all my auto Immune problems why tempt fate.
    Plus I have not forgotten what happened, I lived it.
    So when I watch movie like this I have to steed (?) myself and be in the right frame of mind.
    I have read a review on the movie from an aide of Johnsons and as I remember President Johnson was really a backer of MLK. In the movie he is shown as having to be "forced" into the civil rights movement of voter rights. It makes for a strong character movie line for MLK but not so President Johnson.
    This is such a strong point is history that I think they should get it right. But after all this is a movie about MLK and not President Johnson.
    As I have not seen this movie I can not really address this point. But it seems a strong point to have a misstep on.
    I think Mississippi Burning should wait for another time. I remember the trial.

    cheers, parsnip



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    1. Mississippi Burning's really good, though. I'll share it with her someday when she's older. Our daughter said she enjoyed Selma.

      I, too, have followed the criticisms concerning LBJ. I don't feel the movie is quite as unflattering as everyone is making it out to be. For starters, Johnson was, by all reliable accounts, a crass and difficult man. If anything, Selma tones down the personality.

      He was also one of our most socially progressive Presidents - only Lincoln and FDR are even worth comparing. Vietnam was political death for Johnson but we still benefit from War on Poverty policies today.

      I don't think the movie portrays Johnson as unsympathetic. The man was a shrewd and effective politician with a lot of pots on the stove. It would be difficult to believe that King was able to walk into the Oval Office, demand whatever he wanted and get it. The world just doesn't work that way - never has. Political and, more importantly, cultural change never come cheap. Johnson gets his hero moments at the end. I think the movie's fair.

      Governor Wallace is the real bastard in the story... and Tim Roth was the perfect choice.

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    2. I don't think I ever recovered from seeing the "water cannons" or what ever they were called used on people.
      Another thought, when I was growing up in Tucson (long time ago) I went to great schools with everyone. I guess we didn't know that we were to hate each other. I assume it was not perfect but we didn't know that, so much better than today. But that said I didn't live in the South.
      It breaks my heart to see the divisions cause by politicians on both sides with Raul Grijalva and Al Sharpton leading the pack.
      As for Governor Wallace I have no words.

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    3. As a human society, we have the capacity for great things when we realize we're all in it together.

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  4. I haven't seen this yet because I'm moving but it will be soon. It really is a shame this movie isn't getting more recognition but it's just one more movie to add to the "under appreciated" list.

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    1. The most obvious big budget comparison is Spike Lee's Malcolm X, a better film in my opinion. But it also received only two nominations, winning neither. Over time, though, appreciation for that movie has grown and I expect that will be the case for Selma, too.

      The Oscars aren't everything anyway. How long did it take Scorcese to finally win?

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  5. I read a number of articles authored by moviephiles who were appalled that Selma was snubbed by the Academy, especially for Best Actor and Best Director. My friend Carol and I want to see this movie. I just might make my once a year visit to a theater. I'm glad you liked it.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. I'd love to know what you think of it, Janie.

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  6. My review will be up before the end of the week (I hope), so I'm not going to comment much, right now.
    However, I will not be rooting for Boyhood. While I appreciate what the director did, the film is actually not very good, certainly not deserving of best picture (or deserving of all of the other awards it's received (some, yes, but not close to all)). I would back Linklater as best director, but that's as far as I could go on it.

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    1. Boyhood and Selma are the only two of the Best Picture nominees I've seen so I'm in no position to judge the others. To me, Boyhood was so much more than a 12-year gimmick. It's the story of a family, growing and changing together. They're not much like my own family but their struggles are easily imagined. I loved it. When we saw it in August, it felt like the sort of movie that was too small for the Academy to even see, let alone appreciate. It's wonderful to see what it has become.

      Sorry you didn't like it.

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    2. I didn't dislike it; it just didn't say anything. As I said in my review, though, it might just be because I kind of grew up in that life.

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    3. To me, the most compelling narrative isn't the son's but the mother's. Her monologue at the end about her own life passing her by is just heart-rending. I'm glad Arquette won the Golden Globe. She deserves an Oscar, too.

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    4. That's what I said! The actual story arc in the movie, the character who grows and changes, is the mother's. Sure, the boy grows up, but that's not "growth," and the epiphany moment at the end between him and the girl is not worth the movie. The climax was definitely the mother's speech; I'm just not sure Linklater actually realized that. I do think that Arquette deserved some recognition.

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    5. It's a slice of life, captured in a new and interesting way. One wonders if it's likely to inspire similar projects or if this was a one-off for the whole concept. Either way, it's a movie I'll remember for a long time.

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  7. I don't like to watch movies like this, but I do watch them. I feel that not every movie experience needs to be enjoyable; sometimes we need to be made to fill uncomfortable. Perhaps movies like this don't get the recognition they deserve because they made the wrong people feel too uncomfortable.

    We've come a long way, but perhaps movies like this reminds people of just how much further we still need to go. It's not always about facts and historical accuracy; the subject matter and perception of realily is more than enough for people understand what's going on in the film and how it relates to what's happening in the world today.

    That's just my two cents. Glad you liked it.

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    1. I've only seen one of the other films nominated for Best Picture so I'm not really in a position to judge Selma's merits in relation to the others.

      The Oscar nominations are the current story but long-term appreciation is another matter entirely. Just out of curiosity, I checked AFI's original top 100 list. Of the top 10 films, 6 won Best Picture, 4 did not, including the top ranked movie: Citizen Kane.

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