Selma: If You’re Only Going to Watch One Movie… Make It This One

Selma

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. 

Martin Luther King
25 March, 1965
Montgomery, Alabama

I start with a quote from Martin Luther King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech, the one he gave on the steps of the State Capitol of Alabama, and the one that closes out Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, because I feel like anything I could write would seem insignificant when standing side to side with such a magnificent movie. It is deeply sad that almost fifty years after Dr. King led thousands of people in that historical march from Selma to Montgomery, we are still in a place where this is the most vital and relevant American movie released all year.

In a year that has been marked by violence and injustice, Selma might feel like a requiem. A eulogy for the ideas that once moved people into action, but seem to have failed to take us anywhere. And this movie is, indeed, a historical account that works uncomfortably well as a relentless mirror of our times… but it is also a hopeful film. A film that doesn’t look back in sadness, but in glory. A film that acknowledges the suffering, but never forgets that all of it had a purpose. That these people decided to stand up and fight for what is right, and that things that once seemed impossible actually happened. That there still might be evil and hateful stupidity in this world, but the ball hasn’t stopped since it started rolling. That outrage still exists. That there are people that are still fighting. That it can’t be stopped, because, as MLK says at the end of the movie, “his truth is marching on”.

Thus, when writing about Selma I must give props to Paul Webb’s screenplay, which isn’t as much a biopic of Martin Luther King as it is a portrayal of the many voices and efforts that helped to make this march possible, and which doesn’t shy away from King’s darker side, yet still manages to reconcile the man’s mistakes with his greatness. On the same front, I must commend actor David Oyelowo, who plays King not only in an outstanding bit of transformative performance, but with the passion and sorrow that could only come from a man that is as tied to earthly necessities as he is trying to strive for superior guidance and wisdom.

And since this is not a movie strictly about King, I must give props to the fantastic cast working around him, which makes Selma almost into a thesis statement of how many terrific black actors are criminally underused by Hollywood. Carmen Ejogo, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Keith Stanfield, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Oprah Winfrey… The list goes on and on. They are all amazing, and even more impressively, they are all on the same page, and they make Selma into the best ensemble work of the year. There is not a sore thumb. And that’s not mentioning the white actors, including Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, who are also fantastic.

Now, I wouldn’t dare finish this review without mentioning cinematographer Bradford Young, who has collaborated with Ava DuVernay in the past, and is one of the most exciting cinematic talents to emerge in the past few years by virtue of not only knowing how to light black skin (a talent that depressingly few cinematographers seem to have), but doing it in a manner that goes beyond expressiveness and beauty into a realm of talent that makes you rethink of every other movie starring a black person that you seen in the past. The way he uses shadows, colors, hues, framing, backlighting… His serene, seemingly low-key style, which I would describe as “warm, and hazy naturalism” might not be immediately showy, but it would take a dumb eye not to notice that there is something especially thoughtful going on in this film’s visuals.

I must also give props to the producers -including Dede Gardner, Brad Pitt, and Oprah Winfrey- who are responsible for bringing in the time and money to finally put this story on the big screen. I also give them props for hiring, and trusting, director Ava DuVernay, who had only made personal dramas with minuscule budgets before taking on this enterprise, and who does an outstanding job of letting the story speak for itself, amplifying the necessary emotions, and trusting in the fact that, since we are talking about an essentially visual medium, a quiet image can hold as much power as the loudest speeches. She is, ultimately, responsible for bringing all these outstanding elements together, and for making Selma one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen.

Selma is a movie that wee need, but also a movie that I want to have. It elicited the most guttural and primal reaction I had in the theater all year. It filled my heart with all kinds of feelings, I teared up, and for a good twenty minutes or so after the movie was done, I could barely find any words to say. I can try to intellectualize as much as I want, but the truth is that the power of Selma is the reaction I had while watching it, and I wouldn’t change that experience for anything. I’m just saying that this movie works, that it deserves to be seen, and that you owe it to yourself to watch it.

Grade: 9 out of 1

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