Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SELMA (2014)

Written by Paul Webb

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Where & When: Vista Theater, Hollywood, CA. January 17, 2015 7:00PM

I was almost three years old when the events of this historical drama, "Selma" took place. I've always been aware of the march for voting rights but this deeply moving film by Ava DuVernay helped put it in a much clearer perspective for me. The harrowing, painful struggles and horrific sacrifices many endured not only for their own basic American liberties but for mine as well. A film about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is well overdue but instead of trying to cover his entire extraordinary life, "Selma" focuses on this very specific time of the civil rights leader.

The film takes an unsentimental look at the legend of Rev. King, displaying a cigarette-smoking, possible womanizing, ambivalent human being. This may disturb some but I find it makes him even more fascinating. How this brave but fallible man was willing to risk his life and lose precious time away from his family for a higher calling. Playing King, David Oyelowo (one of several British actors populating the film in key roles) may not share many physical characteristics but the actor expertly captures the civil-rights leader's fire and gravitas.

"Selma" begins in Norway as Rev. King (Oyelowo) with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are there for him to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Back in Alabama, four little black girls are murdered by a bomb set in their church by the Klan. This horrific act was sent as a violent reminder for African-Americans to remember their place. While they may have earned the right to vote but because of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South, it was made virtually impossible for African-Americans to register. King seeks the help of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is sympathetic but feels this issue will need to wait.

No longer willing to wait, Rev. King travels from his home in Atlanta to Selma with fellow civil rights activists, Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) to devise a plan of action. Speaking before a local congregation, King inspires the crowd to march from Selma to Montgomery for a non-violent protest against this oppression.

There are several obstacles in the way including FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) secretly surveilling the activities of the key players while trying to use some of this information to create deeper tension between King and his wife. George Wallace (Tim Roth), the Governor of the state, is determined to stop the march and has no issue with using brute force.

Ms DuVernay first worked behind the scenes for other filmmakers before deciding she wanted to tell her own stories. She became noticed for her second film, the wonderful very low-budget indie, "Middle of Nowhere", receiving plenty of critical acclaim and awards. With a budget two hundred times bigger than her last feature, the director displays a remarkably confident artistry that many veteran filmmakers with a much longer list of movies still aren't able to accomplish. The filmmaker purposely avoided making anything remotely resembling your standard cinematic biography, stating they are her least favorite form of film. Ms DuVernay has taken what could have easily been an earnest run-through of a history lesson and given it inventive flourish with vibrant camerawork by Bradford Young and kinetic editing by Spencer Averick. Although the film was not given permission to use any of King's actual speeches, you would never notice. The script by Paul Webb (with considerable contribution from the director but denied credit through arbitration) perfectly captures the spirit of his memorable, eloquent words.

Many of the important figures from the civil rights movement make brief but effective appearances (with some deserving their own feature films) and are well-played by a variety of notable performers including Common (who co-wrote the theme song, "Glory" with singer, John Legend) as Southern Christian Leadership Conference director, James Bevel, Cuba Gooding, Jr. appearing as attorney, Fred Gray, Lorraine Toussaint as activist, Amelia Boynton Robinson and one of the film's producers, Oprah Winfrey as the feisty woman known for knocking down the abusive Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, Annie Lee Cooper.

"Selma" comes at a very turbulent time in America with regards to race. With several tragic homicides involving African-Americans by law-enforcement occurring across this country and angry, fed-up people out in the streets protesting, it may seem like we haven't made much progress. There is no denying we have moved forward as a society, right up to this country having it's first African-American President but the racial tensions and the fight for true equality that's depicted in the powerful "Selma" is sadly, still far from over.