Friday, January 2, 2015

New movie review: Selma

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the brilliant new film Selma.

Where are we now? The ripples of 2014 still linger in our minds, and the first waves of 2015 are just beginning to break. Each year, we throw lavish parties and celebrate the transition from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1. We resolve to live better, do better, be better. This year, it is all going to come together. This year will be different. It rarely is, and in a couple months, we will forget to make a fuss about it. The change is cosmetic, really. We all get a little older, our clothes fade a little more in the laundry, and what once was new is now familiar.

So it goes from one year to the next, and the farther we pull back from the day-to-day pettiness of life, the more we see the easy flow from decade to decade and century to century. Years pass, structures crumble, and when we manage to pave over a few newly formed cracks, we call it progress. Yet, we ignore the foundation, long in place and little attended to, that we did not lay but for which we are all responsible.

Into this milieu drops the vitally important and stunningly beautiful Selma, from director Ava DuVernay. The film covers the time Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference spent fighting for black voters’ rights in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Though blacks in the South had the legal right to vote, county registrars used tactics such as poll taxes, citizenship tests, and voucher programs to prevent them from registering.

That was 50 years ago. Think about that for a second. Fifty years is the blink of an eye in the history of modern civilization. We are not more than one or two generations removed from a time when half the population of states such as Alabama and Mississippi could not exercise a basic human right, a freedom on which this country was founded. As a nation, the U.S. has accomplished some great things, but the stain of slavery and the ever-presence of racism are permanent marks on the country’s soul. That the stain will not be washed away is evident, but the true shame is that it continues to grow, spread by the blood and tears of too many to name.

When we lose our way, it is natural to look to the past. Children look to their parents, communities to their elders, and nations to a shared history. Today, protesters march to demand equal protection under the law and justice for the black Americans whose lives are lost at the hands of law enforcement. The demonstrators look to King, long dead now but casting a tremendous shadow, to light the way forward. DuVernay’s film is a sterling account of the struggles and successes of a civil rights movement as relevant today as the day it was founded.

David Oyelowo plays King. He looks nothing like the man but carries himself in such a way that it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He is the King we need now – fiery but controlled, militant but measured, a brilliant man with the weight of the world bearing down on him but with shoulders strong enough to carry the load. DuVernay films him like a superhero, placing her camera below him at every opportunity and allowing him to tower over the frame as he towers over history.

Rarely has a film so well captured the power of a single individual and the way that power radiates to those around him. When King kneels to pray, thousands kneel with him, and those thousands feel like the whole world. Oyelowo, acting from a script by first-time writer Paul Webb, takes us inside the mind of the man, demonstrating the public persona that made him famous and exploring the private worries that made him human.

The stronger King grows, the more concerned the white men in power become – President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). For his own reasons, each wants to cut King down to size, but what they fail to realize is the strength of the movement behind him. Ultimately, the politicians will be cut down to size, and not by King, but by the power of the people he inspired.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the film’s single best sequence: the first march on Montgomery. By all rights, the scene should stand alongside the storming of the beaches at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan and the final showdown in The Wild Bunch as one of the best battle sequences in film history. In this single 10-minute scene, the whole picture of the bloody, brutal South and its desperate attempt to crush the Civil Rights movement is laid bare, and DuVernay reveals herself to be an incomparable talent.

Believing in the symbolism of demonstration, King proposes to lead a 50-mile march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery, Ala. They will bring the fight directly to Wallace’s doorstep. At the last minute, King is pulled away, but the march will go on as planned. They arrive at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and are greeted by the full force of Clark and his goons, as well as federal government forces. What follows is one of the most stunning pieces of filmmaking you will ever see, as the unarmed, nonviolent protesters are viciously attacked by authorities.

Mixing impressionistic flourishes with on-the-ground realism, DuVernay does not shy away from the brutality of the attack or the human cost of the struggle. Marchers, both young and old, are punched, kicked, whipped, and brutalized as the fog of tear gas billows up around the bridge. All the while, the news cameras roll and images of the attack are broadcast around the country.

In this way, the tide will change. The whole world is watching, and in response, those with the will to do so rise up and say, “Not in our name.” The shocking nature of the clear violations going on in Selma spurs honorable men and women, black and white, to go down south and show their support for basic human rights. It is a watershed moment for the movement, but it is not the end of the struggle. It is only evidence of how difficult the struggle will be.

The struggle continues today in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Phoenix, Oakland, and everywhere inequality thrives. The fight will go on because it must go on, and the light cast by leaders of the past such as King can show us the path we must take. Selma should be required viewing – in schools, in churches, in the halls of Congress, anywhere you can put up a screen, really. This is filmmaking of the most vital kind because it not only shows us where we have been but where we may be headed while asking the most important question of all: How are we going to get there?

See it? Yes.

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