Saturday, January 17, 2015

SELMA (2014)

I had no intention of seeing SELMA until sometime when it hit home video. It was not a film I needed  to run out and see. on the big screen....and the the Oscar nominations hit and the Internet and mass media exploded with controversy about who didn't get nominated for an Oscar and how it's supposed to be racism - so I had to find out for myself.

Going in I was pretty certain there was no racism involved, more so after reading Hubert Vigilla's piece at Ruby Hornet where he explains the so-called snubs could be the result of  botched attempts to get the film seen by the Academy members and to sell a film too late in Awards Season. (You can find it here). Now having seen the film I can say that there is a a really good chance that the so called snubs were the result of the voters simply not putting director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo at the top of their lists.

The film is, nominally, the story  of the events leading up to the historic march from Selma Alabama to the state capital lead by Martin Luther King Jr  and it's effect in getting a voting rights law passed.

Taking the film on it's own terms its a good little film that, like 99.99% of other movies should not be considered a completely accurate portrayal  of history.  Its a film of moments of great power and others that are a real mess. Its a film with its heart in the right place but one that preaches instead of shows. Its  film calculated for effect rather than emotion.

Is it an Oscar worthy film? Moments are. The scene outside the coroner's office is  one of the greatest most moving scenes I've seen since I've started writing on film regularly. The reaction of the old man meeting Dr King is dead nuts amazing. If you want to argue about (I believe) Henry G Sanders who the dead man's grandfather not getting an Oscar sign me up but other wise there is nothing to argue about.

The controversy concerning the non-nomination of  David Oyelowo ad Dr King has drawn fire. How could he not have been nominated. I kind of wondered it myself (because he is that good) until I looked at the nominees and realized the problem with the character of Dr King is he is not wholly there. Its not Oyelowo's fault, its the script which reduces him down to largely inspiring scenes and sequences that throw out exposition. "What are the top ten reasons we need this law? I want to paint Johnson a picture." he says in one scene. In another he speaks in cliches of not being able to continue on. As moving as it is, it never quite crosses the threshold into being a real person for the entire running time. He's an actor being asked to deliver a polemic not a performance.

Allowing for that I will say that I want Oylelowo to get another crack at playing Dr King in a better film with a better script.

The so called snub of Ava DuVernay has rankled everyone because she's a black woman. But if you watch the film, and you watch it as a film and not a symbol, you realize it's a mess. Its three or four different films mixed into one and it only occasionally soars.

To be fair I don't know who is to blame here. A large chunk of the problem is the script which shifts from family drama to polemic to Oscar bait to moving tribute and back again from scene to scene. The dialog is either on target or too meaningful exposition and produces a kind of whiplash that keeps us distant.

I do have to lay the historical inaccuracies at the feet of  writer Paul Webb since he's the one that altered President Johnson's character, added in events that never happened (Hoover never sent a tape to Mrs King) and made tweaks that make a hell of a movie but are not history.

I will take Ms DuVernay to task for the uncertainty of style of the film. We get sequences of real events away from Dr King that play like a Lifetime movie, we get soaring moments like coroner sequence or some of the speeches and we get lots of droning on about what has to be done that are presented in cold and clinical precision. I do applaud her efforts when it works but I also have to chastise her for sequences that could have and should have played better and the over use of obvious music cues. And did she really have to stage many moments in such away as to painfully obviously add deeper meanings, say a cross over the head of Dr King in a moment of trouble or with a portrait of Washington between Johnson and King as they stand in an unnatural  place and argue.(I mean would they really have cozied up to a blank wall and stood under that picture when the sofa or chairs in the other part of the room would have made more sense?)

And I'm not sure who to take to task for two rather big missteps. The first is that periodically through the film we see what is supposed to be reports to Hoover from the FBI agents watching King. I have nothing against it outside of the fact it gives an aire of historical accuracy which isn't there. Actually my real complaint is the times are randomly used and more often then not restate the obvious. Wouldn't it have made more sense if it had been done more often-and included dates? When do these things happen? I have no clue (I do, but within the context of the film its all a jumble)

The other misstep is that largely outside of Dr King, Mrs King, Governor Wallace and President Johnson it's never really clear who anyone one is. Who are the people who are on screen? They aren't just faces and random people, they are important both to the story and history but unless you have a score card you don't know who they are. What makes this tougher is characters come and go seemingly randomly so just as you get a handle on one person they disappear for a while.

There was a big to do about Oprah's character, Annie Lee Cooper finally getting recognition for all she did, but in the context of SELMA she is a background character. Her importance in the film is not signaled by what she does but by who plays her. On the other end of the spectrum we get a shot of a white woman at the end with a line about how she was killed by the Klan right after the march, but she's really a nobody as far as the rest of the film is concerned.

Truthfully, on it's own terms, without bringing anything to it or reading anything into it, SELMA is a good movie but far from a great one. Its a film that is the sort of well intentioned film that makes a bit of noise for a couple of weeks and then will sink to be half forgotten down the road- though in this case the film maybe remembered more for the undeserved controversy it created rather than for the artistic heights it failed to climb. Its worth seeing but wait for home video.

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