At last, a feature film that looks at Martin Luther King and Civil Rights – and very good it is too. But is Selma a great film? Does it compare to 12 Years a Slave? In my view no. I thought the film was well-intentioned but flawed both in terms of its structure/narrative, and in terms of the content and emphasis.
a) The film is not always clear: there are scenes that make little sense – why have King listen to Mahalia Jackson singing over the phone? point? and the next day another Mrs Jackson hosts the march organisers for food – who was she? and what does this scene show us (that they eat???)? The start of the film is quite clever but the character played by Oprah (Annie Lee Cooper) could have been developed more fully – she might indeed have been the focus of the film. The point about Malcolm X going to Selma and his conversation with Coretta King (which did happen), Malcolm’s role in civil rights and growing influence on SNCC, is just too short … blink and you miss it as one reviewer said.
b) Why Selma I wonder? Why not Birmingham? Or Albany? Or St. Augustine? Or even better, the period 1965-69? The story did not end in 1965 any more than it did in 1963 or 1964. Indeed some reference to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City might have provided useful frames of reference. After all, another march, from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, took place in 1966 – and began with one individual, James Meredith, who was shot and wounded. Which brings me to the main concern.
c) As the poster suggests, the film’s focus on King is a little problematic: “The movement made Martin, Martin didn’t make the movement” said Ella Baker. After all, the Selma Voting Rights Project originated with James Bevel and Diane Nash – and it was Bevel who thought of the idea of a march to Montgomery. And see the earlier campaign to register to vote led by SNCC – this could have been where the film began or could link with Mrs Cooper.
I also wonder why British actors were thought best for key roles like Wallace and LBJ – the southern drawl needed more emphasis, even though both Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson were good. Their famous exchange in the White House was not quite accurate – LBJ used his height and his rocking chair to good effect, and the film missed one important line – LBJ asked Wallace if he wanted a monument that said “George Wallace – He Built” or one that said “He Hated”!
But Johnson’s equivocation is well-captured, and the film (and brilliant acting by David Oyelowo) really give some sense of King, his doubts and frailties as well as his strengths. But does it really offer an explanation for his remarkable decision to turn the second march back? I didn’t think so. In a way this is as anti-climactic in the film as it must have been at the time. Maybe another film is needed on King – King and Black Power? King and the war in Vietnam? King in Chicago (where he failed)? – or perhaps a life like this is difficult to capture and do justice to in a a short commercial film? But well done to the director Ava DuVernay for trying.