GREAT FILMS: Selma (2015)

Selma (USA, 2015)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland

When I reviewed 12 Years a Slave, I spoke about how the Academy Awards have to be treated with a combination of deference and distance. For all their self-importance and groan-inducing excess, the Oscars have not become so irrelevant as to warrant us ignoring them entirely, as we do with the Golden Globes. But this year's furore over whitewashing, with individual stars boycotting the ceremony in protest at the lack of non-white nominees, has brought their potential obsolescence into sharper focus. The Academy has promised to change, but it still has a long way to go to become any more than a conversation starter for the casual filmgoer.
It’s easy to think that the 2016 Oscars controversy is something that appeared out of the blue, the product of fluky slip-ups and structural oversights. But wind back just 12 months earlier and there was plenty of evidence of the same problem. While everyone was falling over themselves to praise The Imitation Game, Birdman and The Theory of Everything, Selma largely slipped through the cracks. Whatever the merits of these offerings – especially Morten Tyldum’s work - Ava DuVernay’s historical drama was worthy of a lot more recognition, being one of the finest films of the year.
There is an interesting discussion to be had about why Selma received relatively little attention at the Oscars while 12 Years a Slave walked away with Best Picture. Even before Ricky Gervais touched upon it in Extras, there was an underlying feeling that the Academy gives recognition to films about victims; the members tend to favour films which make you ponder and cry rather than laugh, scream or cheer (apart from The King’s Speech). It’s also arguable that the decision to recognise 12 Years a Slave was in itself a demonstration of Hollywood racism. A film whose main black characters were oppressed, tortured and brutalised was applauded, while a film in which black people play an active role in changing their own destinies was ignored.
Away from crying racism, another possible explanation lies in the attitude which America has to some of its social problems. Slavery and the civil rights movement have both left indelible scars on America’s history, but slavery – at least in its more obvious forms – can be distanced from us by history while Martin Luther King Jr. still feels recent. It’s only in the last few decades that Britons have come to feel ashamed, rightly or wrongly, of aspects of the empire which were once universally celebrated. In the same way, Americans are still reluctant to approach Selma’s subject matter; even without Steve McQueen at the helm, it’s still too recent to be tackled abstractly enough to make it palatable for audiences. That’s why Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did so well, despite being far too well-behaved.
Whatever explanation you gravitate towards, the fact remains that Selma is a great historical drama. It doesn’t have the same visceral, harrowing quality as 12 Years a Slave, but equally its subject matter doesn’t automatically warrant a focus on brutality; not every murky political drama about the Deep South has to look and feel like Mississippi Burning. Where McQueen is primarily interested in dehumanisation and the destruction of the human body, DuVernay is concerned about the personal cost of beliefs: the burden that doing what it right places upon those closest to you, and how personal struggles can reflect and alter the identity of a whole country.
One of the very best things about Selma is that it manages to tackle this in a deeply un-showy way. In other films, we could spend hours staring at grief-filled close-ups of people struggling, weeping and wailing, in a manner which could quickly become manipulative. But DuVernay focusses on the stillness of the characters; she refuses to let David Oyelowo's King become a tub-thumping caricature, rooting his strength in his professionalism, maturity and stern courage. Perhaps this is another reason why Selma was overlooked: it’s not consciously worthy enough for the Academy's tastes.
Selma is a brilliant examination of how racism becomes institutionalised to the point where it becomes the norm. The early scenes of Annie Lee Cooper attempting to register to vote see her coming up against racism with a smiling face: not thugs with sticks, but unfair rules written by bigoted men who have the backing of the courts. Violence against black people is still prominent, with the murder of four young girls by the Ku Klux Klan being shown in close proximity to this. But DuVernay is making a very valid point about power manipulates people. Soft, insidious power, taking the shape of bureaucrats who are at best indifferent to people’s plight, does as much to demoralise and alienate a group as any amount of torches, pitchforks and lynchings.
This also leads on to the role of violence in the film, and how counterproductive it is as a form of protest. When Cooper lashes out at Sheriff Jim Clark, it leads to her, King and others being arrested and sets their cause back considerably. King realises that violence will only play up to the white man’s expectations of the black community, reinforcing the status quo. He reasons instead that they must demonstrate their willingness to submit to the law, albeit a law which is based on justice and equality rather than historical prejudice. It’s a great demonstration of what Mahatma Gandhi  called satyagraha, and DuVernay conveys it in a far more emotive way than Richard Attenborough ever managed in three hours of Gandhi.
One of the main – and thoroughly baseless – criticisms of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was that Tomas Alfredson presented John Le Carré’s tale of intrigue and treachery with so little bombast that it became nothing more than a bunch of old men in suits talking in rooms. Selma has a similar balance of locations, and a certain amount of espionage, but it avoids getting bogged down in either demagogy or political jargon. DuVernay’s direction always keeps the personal impact at the forefront, whether it’s in the threatening phone calls or the strain on King’s marriage. Rather than belittle the wider struggle, this makes it resonate all the more. These people are not parrots for historians or actors reciting finely-tuned speeches – their passionate desire for change lifts us just as their every setback burns our hearts with pain and righteous anger.
The issue of historical accuracy always rears its pedantic head with such films, just as it did with The Imitation Game. In the case of Selma, the main gripe appears to be the relationship between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson, superbly played by Tom Wilkinson. The real Johnson, people argue, was far more respectful towards King and was supportive of civil rights legislation. Joseph A. Califino, Jr. went so far as to accuse the filmmakers of “filling the screen with falsehoods”, believing that they were “immune from responsibility” because both men are now dead.
DuVernay's defence that she is "a storyteller, not an historian" is a thin one if you believe that we have a responsibility to accurately portray people who really existed. But within the context of the wider points the film is making, their relationship makes perfect sense. Johnson is not an obstructive stereotype: he is a man divided between his conscience and his political nous, not wanting to see another round of warring states 100 years after the civil war. He represents the problem, being a Southern president, but also the opportunity to do the right thing, and his scenes with Oyelowo are terrific drama.
Selma is a great historical drama which marries a brace of barnstorming male leads to an excellent balance between tension and thoughtfulness. It is a slow-burning film which is occasionally repetitive, but DuVernay's direction and focus on the characters lets its themes and principles unfold with great naturalism and dexterity. While it doesn't quite reach the filmmaking heights of 12 Years a Slave or The Imitation Game, it is still a must-watch and is thoroughly deserving of a wider audience.


NEXT REVIEW: Bulletproof Monk (2003)


  1. Hi, how are you doing? Just like I did last year I wanted to ask you a favor, I'm promoting my new comic, as you can see here:

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