By Preston Wilder
Selma isn’t a person, it’s a place – a town in Alabama that became a flashpoint of the civil rights movement in 1965 after Martin Luther King (played by David Oyelowo) organised a march from there to the state capital Montgomery. If we lived in the US – where Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday – that clarification might be unnecessary, but we don’t, and in fact you have to wonder why Selma is even playing here. If ever a film seemed designed for domestic consumption, this is it.
OK, that’s a little harsh. The actual march, where thousands of ordinary people braved violence and possible death to demonstrate for their rights (specifically the right to vote), is a tale of courage and defiance that can be appreciated just as well by non-Americans. More importantly, this is Oscar season, so questioning Selma’s presence at the local multiplex is a bit ingenuous – though the film didn’t do as well as expected at the Oscars (it won two nominations, including Best Picture). Critics in the US claim it’s been short-changed, with some hinting darkly at racism. Many have listed it among the best films of the year.
To be honest, I don’t see it. The film is dully reverential, struggling to impose some dramatic shape on the proceedings and too often coasting on King’s oratory to provide momentum. There were three marches from Selma to Montgomery, not just one – but the first two never reached their destination, giving the film a stop-and-start rhythm for those unfamiliar with its subject. Cynics will say that Selma is more about flattering a white audience than inspiring a black one – because, as shown here, it was the belated involvement of white America that swung the balance: King and his followers could’ve gone on a thousand marches and been beaten back every time, at least till the TV cameras broadcast their plight across the nation and sympathetic outsiders joined the fray, forcing the hand of President Lyndon Johnson who finally signed a Voting Rights Act.
Johnson is played by Tom Wilkinson, who played the exact same role (the powerful man who can use his power for good, and finally does so) in last year’s Belle. His scenes with King are the backbone of the story – and in fact that’s where King seems most vivid, horse-trading with the top man in the corridors of power. There’s a more intriguing film in the margins of this one, a film about an ambitious leader, more politician than activist – “We have to move beyond these protests to some real political power,” he says at one point – who may be motivated more by power for himself than compassion for “the lost ones”. What if King was actually quite bad at ordinary empathy, more at home giving speeches and planning strategy? But King – like Mandela in Invictus, or Lincoln in Lincoln – is a modern-day saint, so such heresy isn’t permissible.
Oyelowo, a Brit of Nigerian origin, is winning plaudits for his performance, and his King is indeed magisterial – but also rather limited; like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, you could watch any 10 minutes of this performance and get the full effect. The film does try to hint at flaws, especially in the scenes with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, another Brit). The very first shot has him practising his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then breaking off to say “This ain’t right” – as if implying that the stiff, unblemished façade isn’t the whole story. The fact that he cheated on his wife isn’t ignored (though a sub-plot about the FBI using it to smear him seems undeveloped), and we do get a touch of regret at his manifest destiny. Wouldn’t it be nice, he tells Coretta, if he were just a pastor in a small town? “Lead a little church, teach a class. Maybe the occasional speaking engagement…”
Selma is intelligent, and certainly well-meaning – but it’s a history lesson rather than a movie (at one point, the plot stops so that characters can explain the concept of “voting vouchers” to each other), and of course a comfy wallow in Our Common Victory against the racists. The final march actually took place after Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act, so it’s totally anti-climactic – but the film shows it anyway, just to end on a feelgood note. The treatment of African-Americans is a long-running sore on the US body politic – it led to the Civil War, which nearly split the country – made even sharper by America’s fierce allegiance to the notion that “All men are created equal” (Europe, with its centuries of feudal past, tends to appreciate the sentiment but treat the idea with more scepticism), so Selma is both relevant and necessary on home soil. A viewer in Cyprus may need slightly more, however – a clearer dramatic arc, or just fewer inspirational speeches – to make up for our less urgent interest in the subject-matter. Selma? Selma who?
DIRECTED BY Ava DuVernay
STARRING David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
US 2014 128 mins