Friday, January 2, 2015


 4.5 / 5 

Anchored by a vivid, urgent performance by David Oyelowo, Selma charts a course similarly navigated by Steven Spielberg's Lincoln by examining the spirit and courage of its subject not through a sweeping cinematic birth-to-death biography but by focusing on one key period.

I thought Lincoln foundered in those waters, coming across as dull, stodgy and pretentious, but Selma is altogether different.  In large part because of Oyelowo's intensity and conviction, Selma is a period piece but feels vital and modern, it is a history lesson -- but one in which history comes alive in ways both thrilling and maddening.

The highly politicized issue of racial equality in America has been portrayed many times on screen, and Selma itself has already become a political target.  But whatever historical liberties it might take are to its benefit: Selma is a magnificent movie, directed with assurance by Ava DuVernay.

Although it has a shaky, slow start as it sets up the players; for those in the audience (like me) who aren't students of the civil-rights movement, the exposition can be confusing, though the decision to include a fatal 1963 church bombing early on is galvanizing, not only for viewers but for King and the country.

As the movie shows King organizing non-violent protests, and the devastating impact they have, it gains confidence and Oyelowo comes to the forefront.  Through its evocative production design and focus on building the dramatic tension between King and political leaders, Selma becomes increasingly engrossing.

That's the most important objective a movie can have -- and one that Tony Kushner's screenplay for Lincoln neglected.  Selma never forgets its most important mission as a movie is to tell a great story, and as it moves forward with King's determination, it finds a surprising amount of sympathy and even suspense in the ways King remains recognizably human.  Selma is an inspired reminder that Martin Luther King was a husband, a father and a fallible man, one whose leadership was impeccable, but who wasn't above doubting himself or, at a key moment, retreating in order to forge ahead.

The sacrifices are enormous ones, and the death and violence on screen are shocking and affecting.  Selma doesn't try to paint a sainted portrait of a perfect hero, nor to tell a story about minorities through the lens of kindly white people -- or, worse, to present history with the sentimentality of a Hallmark card as the ridiculous The Butler did last year. It puts Martin Luther King front and center -- it's his story about his conviction.

If you come away wanting to know more about how King came to be the leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, or what led to his assassination three years after the events depicted in Selma, that's the point: Selma is inspiration to learn more about him because Oyelowo's performance is so vibrant and real.  His performance is both human and heroic.  It's a staggering achievement in acting precisely because it doesn't feel like acting; there's not a false note (nor one of mimicry) in his performance, and he makes you long for the kind of public leadership that is so lacking today.

Selma effortlessly avoids the earnest "good-for-you" style of historical drama (I'm looking at you, Lee Daniels), neither is it whitewashed apology nor pious hagiography.  It's just a damn good movie all around, one that never loses sight of its important mission to entertain -- and because of that focus, becomes all the more inspiring and effective.  It certainly ranks as one of the year's best.

Viewed Jan. 2, 2015 -- AMC Century City


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