“Selma” Resonates, Fifty Years After King

Maximilian Shatan ‘18

If nothing else, “Selma” is a timely film. In an uncanny case of cinematic star-alignment, the film comes out at a time in which protests are taking place throughout the country over the shooting of Michael Brown and the choking of Eric Garner. Because of this, Selma” has been fed into the praise/outrage machine that is the modern blogosphere. The film has been subject to a number of controversies, from producer Oprah Winfrey’s statements concerning the recent protests, to an allegedly inaccurate portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Perhaps most inflammatory is the double Oscar snub of lead David Oyelowo and director Ana DuVernay. These recent events has made discussing the film objectively an almost impossible task.

Make no mistake, “Selma” is a very good film, but it must be recognized for what it is: classic Oscar-bait. It’s well acted, tastefully shot, and conventionally written, with a large budget and plenty of celebrity money. Chronicling Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from “Selma,” Alabama to Montgomery, the film more than makes up for its lack of innovation with its unabashed emotionalism. DuVernay knows when to keep things calm, when to play with the audience’s sense of anticipation, and when to strike with tragedy at the right time. The intentions of “Selma” are clear: to move the viewer, and in this respect it succeeds.

Instrumental to this is David Oyelowo’s understated performance of King. He steers clear of the half-baked caricature that most actors bring to the influential Civil Rights leader and adds a human touch that invites the audience to sympathize. Carmen Ejogo is also excellent as King’s wife, Coretta. She is an intriguing character, at times steadfastly supporting the movement, at others, questioning her duty as the wife to an influential leader in said movement.

“Selma” is a moving and important film, and one that offers an engaging history lesson as well. But where it succeeds most is in representing an ideal form of a Civil Rights film. 2013’s The Butler had a similar mission statement, but a lack of focus and an unevenly-paced plot rendered it tedious. Where that film fails, “Selma” succeeds, its focal point just a few weeks in 1964. The right mix of education, entertainment, and empowerment, “Selma” was one of the best films of 2014, and yes, should have snagged more Oscar nominations.

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