Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Recent Watches: Selma (2014)

2014 was the year for “Selma.” There have been few years in recent memory as wrought with racial tension, protests, and police abusing their powers. The time had come to remind the public of the beginning of the civil rights movement. “Selma” was met with wide critical acclaim, cracking many top ten lists. Despite this, the film was only nominated for two Academy Awards, being snubbed in the best actor, director, and writing categories. The film earned only a seemingly token Best Picture nomination and a Best Song nomination, only the latter of which the film has any shot at winning. Many essays and articles have been written about this oversight, whether racism, late screeners, or studio politics are to blame. These debates overlook the key question: Is “Selma” really that good?

Set in 1964, the civil rights movie has been enraged by the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church and Jim Crow laws in the south, preventing blacks from voting. Martin Luther King attempts to sway then President Lyndon B. Johnson to criminalize racist laws like these but the president is reluctant to directly intervene. King and his fellow protestors decide to march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery. They are with violence from the local police, egged on by racist governor George Wallace. King faces murder threats to himself and friends, pressure from the government and other figures in the civil rights movement, and his own doubt over whether to go ahead with the march.

The greatest thing “Selma” does is give an intimate peak into the personal life of King. It begins with King putting his tie on, memorizing a speech in a mirror. This segues into him having a discussion with his wife, which nearly escalates into an intimate moment before they’re interrupted. Throughout the film, “Selma” contrasts King’s life as a human being, racked with doubt and uncertainty, with his legendary status as a figure in American history. Several of his historic speeches are given in the film. (Though slightly rewritten because, get this, the speeches copy-righted by another company.) However, we also see the thought-process behind the speeches, King scribbling down ideas and sentences before bed. His relationship with his wife provides the film with an emotional backbone. One especially raw moment has Coretta confronting her husband about his affairs and mistresses. Compared to lightweight biopics like “The Theory of Everything,” “Selma” is not afraid to explore the uncomfortable truths about its subject and dive deep into his private thoughts and motivations. Acknowledging the man’s mistakes, flaws, and humanity make him a deeper, more real human being.

“Selma” also bracingly documents the horror of the era. After that funny, humanistic opening with King and his wife, we cut to several little girls talking in a staircase. Only after a massive fireball consumes the building do we realize this is the 16th Street Baptist Church. The injustices are painted in vivid, painful strokes. The Alabama police beating peaceful protestors during a night march plays out with an intensity out of the best horror films, climaxing with the sickening shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Even more awful are the beatings at Edmund Pettus Bridge, where protestors are cracked over the head with clubs, run down on horse back, and pelted with tear gas. Like “12 Years a Slave,” the film holds up history’s horrors to modern eyes, begging us not to forget. After the events of last year, these moments strike an even deeper cord then before. These sequences are thrilling, though in the worst way, and directed with a seasick sensibility by Ava DuVernay.

During these darkest hours, when the oppression of the era is made all too clear, “Selma” is most effective. However, the film also documents the political and bureaucratic power plays behind the scene. These moments, by their very nature, are not as effective. The film has come under fire for its treatment of Lyndon Johnson, who is painted as unwilling to help King’s movement. Factual accuracy aside, these early moments do fine setting up the story, raising the stakes for what’s to come. Much of the story is framed by secret documents from the FBI, spying on King and doing everything they could to discredit him. By the last third, after the worst abuse has been suffered, “Selma” focuses too much on Johnson and Wallace’s debates, working with and against King’s movement. These things happened, one way or another, I’m sure. They should be part of this story. But after the gut-punch of “Selma’s” middle section, they provide a faltering final section for the film.

An interesting move on the filmmaker’s behalf was to cast mostly unknowns as the black characters in the film, save small parts from Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. Meanwhile, a swell collection of recognizable character actors play many of the film’s white figures. David Oyelowo’s performance as King is uncanny. He perfectly captures his mannerisms and vocal tics. The entire film rests upon his portrayal of King, rooting a historical story in common humanity. Carmen Ejogo, who has played Coretta King before, is equally good, never underselling the woman’s quiet strength or her vulnerability. There are many notable supporting parts: Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Stephen Root as Al Lingo, an excellently twitchy Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White. However, Tim Roth gives my favorite performance as George Wallace. Totally convinced of his despicable beliefs, Roth isn’t afraid to chew into Wallace’s real life racism, exposing it for all its ugliness. (Notably, Wallace is accompanied by a Confederate flag in everyone of his scenes.) Perhaps the film would have attracted less controversy if Wallace had been stationed as the story’s villain, instead of Johnson. (Though considering Wallace was elected three more times after the events the movie portrays, maybe not.)

Excellently acted and directed, “Selma” is frequently powerful. It’s certainly effective at what it sets out to do. Yet the film looses a lot of steam before it’s over, falling victim to the belief that important films should have important run times. However, I doubt this has much to do with the film’s Oscar snubs. It should have received more nominations, for sure. Since the Academy lost its shit for the sanitized “The Theory of Everything” and the gutless “American Sniper,” maybe the harsh realities and honest drama of “Selma” wasn’t to its liking. [7/10]

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