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Selma

“Selma” operates a lot like “Lincoln” did a few years ago, but with more straight kicks to the gut.

Like Spielberg’s film, this biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t interested in casting a saintly light on it subject.  Instead it’s more interested in exploring the curious mix of backroom politics, media manipulation, and various other strategies that really bring about change in our country. It’s becoming clear, according to the movies anyway, that being right and being stubborn aren’t enough to get things done; you must also be shrewd, politically savvy, and willing to bleed a little.

Thus we find Dr. King, whose name is almost synonymous with non-violence, seeking out violence.  After a disappointing meeting with President Johnson, King heads to Selma, Alabama, after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  When he is punched in the lobby of his hotel, he knows this is the right place for the next public protest.  King needs people to punch him; the movement only grabs headlines when it is met with violent resistance, and headlines are the only way to change the temperature of the public debate, which will then put pressure on the White House.  If there is no resistance to the protest, if the march is allowed to proceed peacefully, then there’s no publicity, and nothing changes, and the whole thing was a waste of time.

 

Making that kind of movie is immensely tricky, especially as racially charged as things have been in our country lately.  If director Ava DuVernay made just a few missteps, if she hadn’t paid careful attention to the film’s tone every microsecond, “Selma” could easily feel like a film critical of Dr. King and his political machinations (I will guess that people coming from a certain starting place will find it that way anyway.) But DuVernay, with a lot of help from David Oyewelo as King, manages just the right tone of sobering realism.  If Oyewelo had come across at all self-important, the whole thing would have been sunk.  Instead, he comes across as humble, tired, filled with doubt, but also determined and driven by both vision and the desperate need for change.  It’s a great performance, and a perfect mix of greatness and humanity.

It helps that she drives home the stakes with a couple of scenes that really drive home the stakes of the political battle.  This is where “Selma” outstrips “Lincoln.”  In that film, the actual plight of the slaves seems awfully far removed from the meeting room full of white men arguing about the plight of the slaves. Not the case in “Selma,” where those who suffer the most at the hands of bigots come face to face with Dr. King, and march alongside him.  I very rarely cry in movies, especially those calculated to jerk tears, but this one I had to stop and sit with for a few minutes before I could continue. Like Dr. King himself, It’s a powerful, shrewd, complex and compelling film.

 

 

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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