Friday, January 30, 2015


You know it's Oscar season when biopics flood the theaters. This will make my fourth biopic review for this season, and I'll probably be doing at least one more after this. Of the lot, Selma (2015) is easily the most moving and arguably the most important to see. It's won several Golden Globe awards and is up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. Selma reminds us of where we've been as a country in terms of racial segregation and should remind us that we've still got a ways to go.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the south, discrimination was still rampant in certain areas, making it very difficult for blacks to register to vote. Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) was making no movement to stop the discrimination or allow the blacks in his state to vote. In 1965, an Alabama city became the battleground in the fight for suffrage. Despite violent opposition, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his followers pressed forward on an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, and their efforts culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.
I think an indication of continued racial segregation is the fact that we have a month devoted to Black History. While in grade school, I remember hearing about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the great things he did and stood for. I also remember hearing about the Vietnam war. While I had a general idea of the timeline in which these events took place, it not once occurred to me that these events were contemporaneous, nor that one might affect the other. They were completely separate events in my mind. How President Johnson could send troops to Vietnam when there was a violent war for human rights being fought on American soil was something repeatedly brought up in Selma. Black history is American history and should not be separated from other historical events and only taught during a specific month of the year.
It's interesting that Selma starts off with Dr. King accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway in 1964, nearly a year before the march in Selma takes place. Normally, our hero is given recognition and awards at the end of the story. I think this was done to show that even though awards were given for Dr. King's work, there was still lots left to do and to accomplish in the name of equality. Awards and recognition for standing up for the rights of the oppressed are basically meaningless when people are still being oppressed. That truly set the tone for the story told in Selma; the blacks in the south did technically have the rights they were demanding, but were being kept from accessing those rights. If that is so, was the Civil Rights Act really a victory deserving of recognition?
Selma brought the events of the Voting Rights Act to life in a very real way. It was unabashed and earnest in its depiction of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. We see and hear horribly racist acts and remarks with shocking honesty. It's disturbing to think that people could be beaten within an inch of their lives (and some to death) by law enforcement for no reason other than demanding access to rights that have already been granted to them. It's one thing to think it, it's another thing to see it. While there are acts of violence portrayed in Selma, it remains safely within its PG-13 rating. Yet these acts of violence are despicably unjust since the victims are neither doing anything wrong nor fighting back. Some absolutely want to fight back but the aggressors have more firepower and authority; if the black citizens were to fight, and they did, even more black citizens would be killed. The injustice is expressed remarkably well in this movie and will likely cause your blood to boil.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and David Oyelowo
I had not heard of David Oyelowo, but upon looking him up, he's been in several major motion pictures including Interstellar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I have seen. Here, he gets the starring role and he's simply amazing. He embodies Dr. King so perfectly that you'd assume he actually was the civil rights leader. He's very kind, speaks boldly, and is passionate about what he is doing. A couple of Dr. King's speeches were reenacted for the movie and they were powerful! I can't think of many times that I was truly moved or felt invigorated by a speech, especially not one pertaining to politics. Oyelowo captured Dr. King's mannerisms, vocal inflections, and passion perfectly. There were a few times I was ready to stand up with the crowd he was speaking to and applaud, but thankfully I remembered I was in a crowded movie theater and constrained myself. Oyelowo's acting is possibly the best I've seen of this year's Oscar Nominees; he deserves something even if he's not up for Best Actor.
Selma was a powerful movie. If you paid attention in your modern history class you'll already be familiar with the story. Even if you think you know what's coming, the movie positively hums with suspense and surprise. It's packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters. This is a powerful and empathic piece of cinematic storytelling. This shouldn't change how you feel about these events, but seeing history come alive like this is positively riveting! The movie is beautifully written, remarkably well cast, amazingly well acted, and the camera work was nothing shy of gorgeous. This is worth seeing in theaters if you can manage it, but even if you can't, don't miss this excellent movie. It's so well done that even those who don't enjoy dramas or biopics will be enthralled with Selma.

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