Timing is everything. The current state of racial turmoil in the United States is abundantly clear and, much like the central figure in Ava DuVernay's freight-train of an Oscar contender, Selma, I'm a believer in universal peace and unconditional love. But with relatively recent outcomes in the deaths of unarmed African American individuals such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, where much controversy has been boiling up for some time, DuVernay's timely picture leaves us pondering how far we've really come since the violence-plagued Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
David Oyelowo stars as the charismatic preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during his fearless crusade to the hotbed of racial animosity in Selma, Alabama. After local authorities continue to reject voter registration applications from African Americans trying to exercise their rights, Dr. King shifts the focus of the Civil Rights Movement to the heart of the south where he's greeted by hate-fueled law enforcement and state politicians. Desperately seeking the support of a reluctant President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Dr. King decides to lead a peaceful 54-mile march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery in hopes of achieving legislation granting African American's the uninhibited right to vote.
Analyzing the latest emotional Civil Rights drama, Selma, purely on its qualities as a film, there are many aspects that are worthy of fair criticism. Many strong performances aside (I will touch on each of them later), DuVernay's breakthrough feature is hampered by a noticeably weak first-time screenwriter, Paul Webb, and some serious issues with pacing. While Webb's screenplay has been lauded by many in the early going of the year-end awards run, the writing is actually bogged down with mild cliches and very little depth. What you see is what you get and, outside of a few justly included facts surrounding Dr. King's known infidelity, most of the film's characters and situations are quite superficial and without complexity. As for the movie's long-winded and repetitive feel, I understand that the entire production team stays true to the historical timeline and the three marching attempts needed to achieve their goal, but the manner in which the story unravels is punishingly slow. These mitigating factors place Ava DeVernay's Selma much closer to Lee Daniels' The Butlerthan last year's gut-wrenching Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.
Despite over-extending itself and merely scratching the surface with a majority of its characters, Selma offers many exceptional performances. While David Oyelowo's courageous turn as Dr. King will almost assuredly land him an Oscar Nomination in the Best Actor category, I was most impressed by supporting stars Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson. Ejogo is given the most multi-dimensional character as Coretta Scott King and she handles the role mightily well. Roth is convincingly despicable as segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and Wilkinson walks on egg shells adequately as President Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, DuVernay gives a superb directorial effort in her own right. The auteur's whole-hearted devotion is evident as she truly captures the essence of these iconic moments in U.S. history. Some naysayers will declare DuVernay's assumed Oscar Nomination for Best Director as nothing more than a flashy headline, as she'd be the first female of color to ever be nominated. Yet, truth be told, she does a remarkable job and would be worthy of any such recognition.
I will close by stating that I typically try to avoid political discussion because of the insensitivity it generally promotes, but Selma makes it difficult to ignore. And while I certainly understand the authenticity dedicated to showing physical brutality and visceral images that undoubtedly occurred during this real-life struggle for freedom, however, putting such a large focus of the film on the unforgivable rage that transpired in Selma is the wrong message to send to audiences. Although I will not speak on DuVernay's behalf and claim this as her intention, I can guarantee that there will be factions of viewers who leave the movie theater feeling bitter and enraged by the story. For example, at last night's screening in the city of Philadelphia, a select few clapped and cheered during the final moments when screen text revealed that racist politician George Wallace was left paralyzed by an assassination attempt in 1972. This is by no means the message of peace that the great Dr. King lived and died for, and that's the message our country needs right now.