Thursday, January 1, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #11: "Selma" Lives Up To Its Large Shadow

This is the first in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. To read about the honorable mentions, feel free to read this post here.

It seems incredible to me that, until Selma, there has not been a film about Martin Luther King Jr. There have, of course been documentaries, and there was a made-for-TV movie that I have not seen but has an incredible cast. There was also this movie made for children that HAS to not be as racist as it looks. Because it looks really, really racist. But, when it comes to major films with a theatrical release, we have not before seen one that really focuses on him. I can't be the only person who was surprised to realize this. Martin Luther King Jr. is such a prominent and important figure, you would think that he would have been the subject of multiple films by now.

But, watching Selma, I realized why this lack of films is the case. There are certain people throughout history who are not just important figures, but who are important presences. Their presence has managed to surpass the figure themselves, and trying to capture such a presence on screen is such a daunting task, that you can't blame people for not trying. It's the same reason we didn't get a film about Abraham Lincoln until 2012's Lincoln which surely would not have even been attempted if not for the people behind it: Steven Spielberg as the director, Tony Kushner as the writer, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln himself-- if anyone could truly hope to make a film about Lincoln then it would be this pedigreed lot. But, despite the film's acclaim, I don't think that even that film managed to fully succeed. As much as I liked the film, Lincoln remains a cipher, and the film is at its best when dealing with the politics of the Congress as opposed to Lincoln himself. Despite Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning performance, and despite Day-Lewis probably coming closer to embodying Lincoln than any other actor ever will, Abraham Lincoln just comes across as utterly unportrayable. His mark on history is just too large.

Here, he looms over a young union soldier named Martin Luther King Jr.  #history

Which of course, brings us back to Selma and Martin Luther King Jr. and, unfortunately, I can't say that it doesn't suffer from the same problem. David Oyelowo (who, as you can see in the picture above, actually has a small role in Lincoln where he plays one of the only black characters...awkward) is a wonderful actor who seems to be popping up in everything recently. This year, aside from starring in Selma, he also had a small role in Interstellar and a more prominent one in A Most Violent Year. He's a very careful actor-- one who is adept at conveying his character's intellect and thought process-- you can see what the character is thinking. He's a wonderful listener. You get the sense in every performance that no decision Oyelowo makes is accidental. And he, unsurprisingly, does very good work in Selma. He captures King's cadence and tone and accent. At one point at the end, the film played a recording of what I think was the real King's voice, but I'm actually not sure. It could have been Oyelowo. That's how good his performance is. He has moments of great power, and at times is truly remarkable. But he undeniably suffers from trying play an unplayable role. He can never accurately play Martin Luther King Jr. because the role itself casts too large of a shadow. He is not just a historical figure-- he has transcended that role as a mere individual, and one cannot hope to ever match or encapsulate that. It doesn't make Oyelowo's a bad performance. It's a good performance-- a great performance even-- but we never believe that he is Martin Luther King Jr.

Oyelowo gives an impassioned speech.
But, while I didn't feel Oyelowo managed to overcome King's shadow, the film itself did, which is an incredibly impressive task. Unlike Lincoln which draws attention to its central character, Selma--through its narrative, and even through its title--manages to circumvent this problem. The film may have King as its main character, but it's not about King. It's about the events that took place in Selma, Alabama in 1965. In depicting these events, the film undeniably succeeds, and that is why it is one of the best films of the year. Director and writer Ava DuVernay, along with cinematographer Bradford Young create a remarkably unique aesthetic. Some scenes are intensely stylized; the lighting, the camera angles, the costumes all come together to create an artistic portrait of the time and the people. It's a very aware filmmaking-- the beauty of it and the careful arrangement are put at the forefront and we are conscious of the composition of the shot. But then (and here's the beautiful part) in the very next scene, the style will suddenly become more realistic. All of a sudden, the underscoring is gone. The camera is shaky. The editing is less polished, the colors are less sharply contrasting. Our awareness of the filmmaking disappears and all at once we feel like we are there in the moment-- much more so than we would have without this distinction in filmmaking, and it's used masterfully here.

Determined protestors in Selma
It is in these moments where the filmmaking shifts that the film succeeds most. Even though the film is not all that violent, the moments of violence that it does have stand out because of the contrast. When we see, for example, a shot of a line of cops standing on a bridge, we feel like we are there with the marchers standing them down. This is what makes the film so powerful. It transports us to these moments.

Another way the film stays out of King's shadow is because...and here's the's not really about King himself! He may be the main character, but the central thesis of Selma seems to be that while King was obviously a crucial figure in the civil rights movement, he could not have accomplished everything alone. As much as he has become the face of the movement, the film keeps the focus elsewhere. When King meets with Lyndon B. Johnson, Johnson often asks him why he does not stop protesting. As Johnson says, King could call off the protests in Selma and stop violence. King, of course, counters and says that if Johnson makes an executive order to give black people the unrestricted vote then that will also stop the protests. It's an important distinction-- King prompted change, but did not directly enact it, as he didn't have the power to. King doesn't actually change over the course of the film and, under Aristotelian rules of drama (sorry, is my liberal arts drama major showing?), that means that he's not the central character of the film-- Johnson is. And Johnson, as played by Tom Wilkinson, is not really a defined presence in the film. When it was announced that the usually-wonderful Wilkinson was playing LBJ-- a fascinating historical figure, there was significant Oscar buzz. Ever since the film was viewed, though, this buzz died down considerably, and I'm not surprised. For such a charismatic figure who plays such a pivotal role in the film, the usually wonderful Wilkinson doesn't really do much of anything in the film. It's never clear if he's meant to be a sympathetic presence, or an antagonistic one (more on that later).

MLK and LBJ meet in Selma

Luckily, the other supporting characters are more clearly defined as, once again, Selma excels when focusing on the protests and the protestors. Selma surrounds Oyelowo with an enormous ensemble, and they are key to this film's success. There are numerous characters whose names are mentioned only once, or never at all. Those whose names are mentioned are usually not given a full backstory (I was shocked at how little was actually said about James Bevel (played by Common) one of the main organizers of the Selma Voting Rights Movement. He welcomes King to Selma, and then he is mostly in the background. But this strategy actually proved remarkably effective in getting us interested in these characters, all of whom are based on real people. DuVernay constantly focuses on the crowd, and when you see the same faces focused on over and over, you become invested in them simply for their presence. What DuVernay is saying by focusing on the characters this way is that, as individuals, they were less important than the movement they helped to bring about. For example, Lorraine Toussaint played Amelia Boynton Robinson, and she has one of the most prominent roles in the film. She is always there. It felt like in every crowd shot, she was there. At one point she gives some sage advice to Coretta Scott King, and delivers one of the only speeches that is not delivered by MLK himself. So, she's definitely a presence in the film. But, and I could be wrong here, I don't think her name is ever mentioned in the movie. If it is, then I missed it and it couldn't have been said more than once or twice. The message is clear: even if Amelia Boynton Robinson is not as famous as Martin Luther King Jr., it doesn't mean she's not important (and, seeing her name in the credits made me read up on Robinson after seeing the film). While most of these small ensemble roles are played by character actors who, while possibly familiar, are not anything close to household names (such as Toussaint, Colman Domingo, and Wendell Pierce to name a few standouts), one ensemble role is played by a famous person. A very famous person. A really super famous person. The most famous person.

Oprah. It's Oprah. The famous person is Oprah. As in Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Cooper and you would be forgiven for thinking she must play a huge part. At the very beginning, she has a scene all to herself, and does have a somewhat pivotal role that occurs early in the film, she is mostly relegated to the background. She's in the crowd with the protestors, she has maybe two lines after the first ten minutes of the film (and that's a generous estimate).'s Oprah. So she's clearly important. By making her just another member of the crowd, DuVernay is once again emphasizing the importance of the film's ensemble. This is also highlighted in the film's epilogue-- one of the most powerful movie epilogues I've ever seen. While Martin Luther King Jr. gives a speech, the fates and accomplishments of various members of that speech's audience are revealed. Some of these are prominent characters who we've focused on throughout the film. But some are incredibly minor characters. One of the most striking examples of this, and how effective this approach was involved Viola Liuzzo. Viola is a character who we had seen exactly once before. She had one line, and then disappeared, not to be seen again until the epilogue. But, her epilogue line was that she was murdered just a few minutes after the speech we were hearing was given. Despite her being such a non-entity in this movie, the audience gasped. DuVernay takes every opportunity to remind us of the importance of everyone who history does not remember in the way that they remember the Martin Luther Kings and Lyndon B. Johnsons.

The only reason Selma is not higher on my list is that I wished the most prominent supporting characters were treated as well as the background characters. I've already mentioned that the portrayal of Johnson felt undefined, but I also felt that Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, was not well served. I actually liked Ejogo's work, but the relationship between Martin and Coretta felt very tacked on and irrelevant. With so much that the film was doing well, it severely dragged with focusing on their lives. It's a pretty well-known fact that Martin cheated on Coretta, and I think it's important to bring this up and don't object to it being included in the film, but the way that information is treated felt very tacked on. It felt irrelevant. After all, the film didn't seem to be about King, so details on his personal life felt distracting more than anything. And Oyelowo and Ejogo didn't have much chemistry. At one point, Coretta and Martin were reunited after not seeing each other in a long time and...neither seems all that emotional about this. It was a relationship that simply didn't need to be there.

Martin and Coretta

I also wish there had been more of an antagonistic presence in the film. Which...seems weird considering that racists tend to make really good antagonists, but hear me out. One possible antagonist was LBJ, but he never seemed to really be in opposition to King and, perhaps because we know he will eventually side with King and give blacks the vote, he never comes across as a clear bad guy. That would have been a really interesting choice, though-- to actually paint him as a villain at first, and then show how he turns into a good guy when he changes his mind. As I mentioned earlier, Johnson is the one who changes the most over the course of the film, so this would have made sense. But, without Johnson as a major antagonistic force, that role fell to the police force in Selma, led by Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). Clark is a bigot and a bully who is portrayed in a manner not unlike an angry boar. He's certainly an antagonist, and a dangerous and despicable one, but he never feels like a threat. He's simply not smart enough. Which leaves us with one character who I wish had been given a more prominent role in the film, and that's George Wallace. Wallace is portrayed by Tim Roth, and Roth is simply incredible. Roth's Wallace brings a level of menace and competence that is terrifying, and which Clark simply doesn't have. He's slimy. He's smart. He's cruel. He fully acknowledges his own bigotry, and it's chilling. Unfortunately, Roth only had a few scenes, but he steals every scene he's in. And it's in Roth's moments on screen that you realize what these protestors were up against. As dangerous and physically violent as the police were (and seriously, the scenes of police brutality are fittingly brutal), people like Wallace were arguably the most dangerous. King himself says at the beginning of the film that no progress could be made until black people had the vote and could get rid of people like Wallace. Roth's performance as Wallace helps us see why. Had he been given more screentime, the film would have had a more gripping antagonist, and Roth would be a contender for an Oscar nomination.

But, despite these faults, Selma is remarkable because it is simply so powerful. Usually, "best of the year" lists have ten entries. In this case, I made it eleven to be able to include this wonderful and all-too-timely film. Unlike the other biopics this year, Selma makes a distinct case for why it's important to hear this story now. It's a rare historical film that immediately asserts its own relevancy in any age, and I imagine it will be as poignant a few years from now as it does today. At the end of the film, we get a fantastic credits sequence which combines historical photos of the real Selma protestors with stills from the movie itself. The whole thing is set to the original song "Glory," which will surely be getting an Oscar-nomination, and has already been nominated for multiple awards. The song's lyrics bring up everything from Selma to Ferguson, and the entire sequence weaves together the events of the past and the events of the present, and made me reassess everything I had just seen on the screen. Selma is not just a biopic. It is not just a presentation of what happened in Selma, Alabama in 1965. It is a film about what is happening right now. And I imagine it will continue to be relevant for the rest of my lifetime.

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