Two things I hate: racism and politics. I don’t like to bring the latter into this blog. This is not a political soapbox but a place to discuss movies. That being said, films can be political, and it is impossible for me to review Selma without dragging politics into it. So here we go.
Selma follows Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital. King (played by David Oyelowo) and the black population want equally voting rights. More specifically, they want to be able to vote without all the restrictions and Jim Crow Laws that enable racist officials to deny blacks voter registration through unfair means, such as ridiculous qualifying questions like naming all the circuit court judges in the state. They also hope it will help to see the end of the terrible bombings and vicious acts against Africans American’s throughout the nation. King thinks Selma, with its racist and violent sheriff, will be a good place to stage protests and begin the march due to all the media attention they would get. Some African American’s in town question King’s methods and even when they don’t the police and local government officials make King’s job no easier. Even with the help of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) may not be enough for King to succeed against the racist Selma community and the equally prejudiced Alabama mayor (played by Tim Roth).
What do I remember the most about Selma? The emotion, the violence, and the music. All three are tied together into a dramatic, hard to watch package that transports you back to a time of racial prejudice, social unrest, and gruesome acts.
Emotion is rife in Selma. The black population is getting increasingly fed-up with the unfair treatment they are receiving from law enforcement and the local, state, and national government. Linked with that is the brutal beatings they are being dealt by police. Some of these attacks result in deaths.
Neither the violence against Selma’s African American community nor the devastating grief they all feel as a result of that violence is pulled back for the screen. We are shown both in all their gruesome reality. Blacks are treated like animals and shown no mercy by ignorant and unapologetic racists. It made me sad to see these fictionalized representations of very real suffering. It made me angry that this had to ever happen let alone still happen in the 21st century.
The music fuels Selma‘s emotional power. To be honest, it’s been a while since I saw the film and maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but I remember the music invoking gospel music. It’s obviously such a great fit for this story. The music shares all the pain, all the struggle, and all the negatives of what King and the others are going through. It also shares all happiness that could come if King and other right activists succeed. It makes all the violent scenes harder to watch but it also makes the ultimate victory all the more satisfying.
To talk more about character for a second, I love that the movie makes King a person. He picks Selma for the protest knowing that it will lead to violence and possibly death. Simultaneously, he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, and he certainly doesn’t want them to die. But he also needs the publicity from such drama in order to get more media attention and more support from the nation for the cause. It shows conflict and questionable methods from someone who is often portrayed on this pedestal of perfectness. I’m proud of the balls it took to take King down from that pedestal and say “yes, he was a great man, but he was far from flawless.” I was actually rather angry at King while watching the first half-hour. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it. Do the ends justify the means? That’s for you to decide. Again, though, I am so happy the director decided to portray this side of King at all.
There has been controversy lately regarding Selma‘s lack of representation at the Oscars. It was only nominated for two awards: Best Picture and Best Original Song. Both nominations are well deserved but many think it reflects badly on the Academy, which after 86 years still awards mostly to white males. In particular, outrage has been lobbied against Oyelowo’s absence in the Best Actor category.
I don’t want to get into all the problems with the Academy. It has it’s fair share, certainly. I don’t get as angry at it as others, but even I have my own gripes with the organization. What I will say is, yes, mores roles need to be written and given to black actors and to actors of all races. The Academy very well can’t nominate black actors if they aren’t getting good parts. I also wish the Academy was more diverse in who receives awards (not that anybody should receive an Oscar just because they are a woman or black or etc.).
With that out of the way, Oyelowo is fantastic in the movie, no question about that, but he’s wasn’t Best Actor of the year fantastic. Like the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for fair voting rights for African Americans was bigger than Martin Luther King, the movie is bigger than David Oyelowo. What’s most important about Selma isn’t how good a job Oyelowo did in the lead part or how superb Ava DuVernay is in his direction or how powerful the score turned out. What’s most important about Selma isn’t these individual achievements but the film itself and the issues about race it brings up.
So if the movie could only be nominated for one or two awards, I’m glad one of them was Best Picture. Did it win? No. Hopefully its nomination and the Oscar controversy around it sparked more awareness and will bring more attention to this wonderful film that is so very important, now more than ever.