By: Kevin Jordan
That’s the way history should be taught.
If that tagline sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s the concluding line of my Fury review. I thought it pertinent for this review because Selma is exhibit B of things I was not taught in school and, probably, you weren’t either. When I saw the preview for this movie, the title baffled me because of (1) my education, (2) I’m under the age of sixty, and (3) I grew up in a place that couldn’t be whiter if it snowed. At my elementary school, you could count the number of black kids on your thumb. Two of those things couldn’t be helped, but the education part continues to burn me up. Like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Era is a section of history that was glossed over in class. We learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a black preacher who fought for civil rights, gave his “I have a dream” speech, and we got a day off of school every January because of him. In all fairness, we learned about a couple other key events as well (Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, school desegregation, to name two), but nothing that really taught us why Doctor King and so many black people were so fired up about it. So, when I tell you that I wondered who Selma was and why her name would be the title of a Martin Luther King Jr. movie, now you know why.
As it turns out, Selma is the name of a town in Alabama and was a major battleground in the Civil Rights movement, particularly regarding the right to vote by black people. Even though federal law guaranteed their right to vote, many southern states did everything they could to keep black people from voting, including stopping them from even registering to vote. This is the kind of thing that infuriates me because my brain refuses to grasp the idea that people consciously acted like that. Don’t get me wrong – I get that it happens; I just can’t understand the mindset of those people who also claimed to be good Christian folk. I’m guessing those same people are still wondering why heaven is so damned hot.
It’s also very eloquently spelled out as to why voting was so important to Dr. King. There’s an early scene where Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is trying to convince President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) why passing voter protection legislation can’t wait years (at the time, Johnson was trying to get anti-poverty legislation passed which he believed was far more important to the black community). Dr. King explains to Johnson that white men who murder black men are never convicted in court because the juries are all white because juries are selected from registered voters and blacks aren’t being allowed to register. This part blew me away because nobody had ever pointed out the connection between jury pools and voter registration to me and Johnson’s reaction in the scene seemed to indicate the same for him. Alas, Johnson doesn’t back down and Dr. King initiates his plan B – organized and non-violent protests and marches in a place sure to draw national attention. Selma was identified as that place due to the local sheriff being a very predictable, violent racist and the state governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), being every bit as racist, though more political about it.
If you’ve read any “best movies of 2014” lists (Selma was technically released in 2014 in four theaters to be eligible for awards), you saw that Selma made nearly every list. Had it actually been released to normal movie-going humans last year (its wide release is January 9, 2015), I would have put it in my top ten as well, though likely not for the same reasons as those other critics. Skimming through other reviews, most of them love it because of the subject matter, but that’s not what makes the movie so compelling; that’s what makes it required viewing in every school in America (incidentally, I strongly believe that it should be shown in every school in America). If you forget about the fact that the movie is essentially a historical docudrama, it’s a very good piece of storytelling and that’s what makes it such a good movie. The film does a great job of conveying what’s at stake, building the tension through the events and characters in Selma as well as the jockeying between Dr. King and Johnson, and climaxing with the very famous fifty-mile march from Selma to Montgomery (again, something I didn’t learn until this movie). The desperation and resolution of the black people is palpable and very real as is the hatred and racism of the white people fighting them. The screenplay even manages to break the tension at just the right times with moments of levity. The film elicited all kinds of emotional reaction from the audience, which was audible throughout (crying, gasping, laughter, grumbling), and most of which wasn’t because we were watching Dr. King do his thing.
That’s not to say the movie was perfect. While Ava DuVernay (director, co-writer) did a very good job with the stuff mentioned above, there are elements that did nothing to propel or enhance the story. For one thing, some of the scene transitions are accompanied by text indicating FBI surveillance. There is a lazy attempt at a sub-story that Johnson was using the FBI (with pressure from J. Edgar Hoover) to distract Dr. King from the Selma protests by harassing his wife. Maybe this actually happened and maybe it didn’t, but since the movie never commits to this idea, it doesn’t make the situation any direr. Another thing is DuVernay’s gratuitous use of slow motion shots. These shots are always used after violent attacks, I’m assuming to add gravitas to the scene, but fail to do just that. In one scene, a bomb goes off and we see splinters of wood and legs in slow motion, but the power of the scene is the shock because it’s unexpected. In another scene, a man is being beaten to death and after we are told the man was killed, we see his head hit the pavement in slow motion. The weight of this scene hits home when we find out the guy is dead (and the initial attack because he’s white), so why the slow-mo after the fact if not just because you can? Yes, those are small parts of the film, but they are large enough to break the spell of the rest of the film for a few moments at a time.
From a strictly historical docudrama perspective, Selma is a great example of why I didn’t think The Help and 42 were particularly good movies. Those two movies took a tepid approach when portraying the racism, almost making racism seem like a quaint anecdote from our past. Selma reminds us how ugly those times actually were and that they weren’t all that long ago. After the climax of the film, we see historical footage of the march to Montgomery and while it’s inspiring to behold the marchers, it’s equally disgusting and shameful to see what some of the bystanders were doing and saying (through signage). It’s for all of those feelings that I believe kids should be exposed to this history so they understand that more resulted from the Civil Rights movement than a holiday.
Rating: Worth every penny for you and your kids, if anything because you learned that Selma is a where, not a who.