Are We Sold on Selma?…Fad or Flop?
Many viewers will visit theaters this weekend wondering “what is Selma?”
A few may be asking this because they skipped a few history classes in school (if this is you, it is okay, that is what Wikipedia is for), but for the majority it will be because of the void left by this highly anticipated film. “Selma,” directed by Ava Duvernay, leads us through a well-shot, brilliantly acted, but ambiguously focused journey recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pursuit for equal voting rights via the historical march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. “Selma” has been on the radar for a mantle-full of Academy Awards, and I admittedly entered the theater both expecting and hoping for it to live up to these standards. Unfortunately, I was met with mediocrity on all the counts of criteria that we here at FilmFad use to evaluate films.
Director Ava Dvernay has certainly made her presence known with the craft in which “Selma” is shot. With her direction of “Middle of Nowhere” in 2012 she became the first African American female to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, however, in the case of “Selma” I do not believe it deserves either a Best Director or Picture nomination. The movie enraptures us early on with a disturbing and unexpected scene of violence but then quickly trails into a standard-shot talking heads film that could be a great documentary.
There are a few scenes that are shot with intriguing lighting such as the oval office or Selma jail cell, but for the most part we are shown dialogue that is drawn out much too far at times. The best shot scene of the film by far is the marcher’s first attempt to cross the bridge out of Selma. The shots through a billowing fog of tear gas with glimpses of bodies either fleeing or fighting off blows from police batons are the best of the film. It is clear that great care was taken to create these captivating shots and they simply left me yearning for similar cinematics in the rest of the film.
Entertainment Value: 3
The film opens on a close up of David Oyelowo as Dr. King is speaking into the camera. The English born actor immediately blows us away with his perfectly crafted Southern accent and continues to give an Oscar nominee level performance throughout. He is able to capture the mannerisms of King’s speaking from his fluttering eyes to the cadence of his stirring speeches. It is clear Oyelowo has done his homework and this is why he is one of the hottest actors in Hollywood, but it is also why the film seems a bit confused. “Selma’s” identity problem comes from its inability to decide if the focus will be on the life of Dr. King or the events of violence surrounding Selma. These are of course intertwined in true history, but the film also distracts us with hints at J. Edgar Hoover and FBI surveillance as well as the incomplete relationship only partially developed between King and his wife, also well-acted by Carmen Ejogo.
This is the type of film that will be re-watched in high school history classes, but is certainly not one that will become a favorite DVD to purchase and pull off the shelf. “Selma” works well as a period piece and stays as true as it can to the historical facts. The one exception being, that despite marching a 54 mile stretch of highway in Central Alabama in Sunday dress clothes under the threat of violence at any moment, none of the characters seem to break a sweat at any time. The stretch of Highway 80 they marched has been deemed a U.S. National Historic Trail and I will be more likely revisiting it in person rather than on film.
Social Significance: 5
This is not a usual category we include at FilmFad, but this is the one thing that “Selma” does best (or worst depending on your views). At many times it feels as if the director and actors are giving a cultural commentary directly to the American people. It may be a coincidence that the release of the film falls between 1) the inauguration of a Republican majority in Congress that has had an agenda to “crack down” at polling sites with ID checks and other voting enforcements and 2) the State of the Union Address of our first Black President. And it also may be a coincidence that the film is released at the height of protests across the country surrounding possibly racially-charged police brutality. Either way the film speaks to us as Americans and this not something all films can do without being trite or patronizing.
Overall, Selma stands as a socially significant film that holds its own cinematically, but falls short in its ability to entertain and hold long term theatrical value. I look forward to seeing the director and actors working together in the future, but next time they will need to focus on bringing out their talents in an entertaining fashion instead of treading us through the chopped underdeveloped events of a history textbook. When taking consideration of all that Selma sells and fails to deliver, my final FilmFad opinion stands as: Flop.