Movie review: In 'Selma,' the times are changing and unchanging
January 9, 2015 12:00 AM
Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton iin "Selma."
David Oyelowo portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie "Selma."
From left, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr., Andre Holland plays Andrew Young, and Stephan James plays John Lewis in "Selma."
By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri and columnist/book editor Tony Norman talk about “Selma.” Plus: excerpts from PG interview with Carmen Ejogo, who plays Coretta Scott King in the film.
The day the marchers walked through desolate valleys and across tiring hills and into history, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in Montgomery, Ala., “They told us we wouldn’t get here.”
'Selma' movie trailer
A chronicle of Martin Luther King's campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
The same might have been said of “Selma,” a recounting of events in March 1965 when three attempts were made to walk from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery. On paper, the film might appear to have several strikes against it: It’s a quintessentially American story with four British actors in the lead, directed by an African-American woman (a rarity in Hollywood), being released at holiday and awards season.
And yet the timing — sadly and providentially — could not be better for “Selma,” a movie with favorable Oscar odds that is being promoted and rolled out as racial tensions and protests spike in this country.
As always, a drama is not a documentary, and the distant, distracting drumbeat of Vietnam is minimized and vigorous objections are being raised over the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. But director Ava DuVernay humanizes and dramatizes a period in which many African-Americans were denied the right to register to vote and they, or their supporters, were beaten, tear-gassed or killed.
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson.
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language.
Of the 15,000 African-Americans eligible to vote in Selma and surrounding Dallas County in Alabama, fewer than 350 were registered in 1965, according to Clayborne Carson’s book on the Rev. King drawn from his writings, recordings and documentary materials.
Ms. DuVernay’s movie focuses on one, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), once described as “a hefty 53-year-old” who became famous for being at the wrong end of the sheriff’s billy club, as captured in a widely used wire service photo.
Early in the movie, she tries to register to vote and is ordered to recite the preamble to the Constitution, which she does. She then is asked about the number of county judges in Alabama and, in the challenge that sends her away disenfranchised but not defeated, to name them.
That is the backdrop for attempts by the Rev. King (David Oyelowo) to persuade LBJ (Tom Wilkinson, his Texas accent slightly off target) to end the systematic intimidation and fear keeping voters off the rolls.
“This votin’ thing’s just gonna have to wait,” the commander in chief insists.
“It can’t,” the civil rights leader counters, spelling out how justice is denied when blacks cannot register to vote or serve on juries where justice is meted out.
“Selma” introduces the principals of the time, including Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo); Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth); civil rights attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.); nonviolent activist James Bevel (Common); presidential adviser Lee C. White (Giovanni Ribisi); lawyer John Doar (Alessandro Nivola); and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), who was beaten unconscious on Bloody Sunday, the name given to March 7, 1965, and the first of three marches.
“Selma” serves as a reminder that the Rev. King may have been the most famous face of the movement, but he certainly was not the only one, whether it was Coretta weary of the “constant closeness of death like a thick fog” or singer Mahalia Jackson answering the call when Martin said, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice,” or members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or volunteers making sandwiches for the 50-mile march.
Ms. DuVernay filmed largely in Alabama, often where real events took place, most notably the Edmund Pettus Bridge where violence erupted. It leads out of Selma across the Alabama River and was named for a U.S. senator who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The strongest arrow in her storytelling quiver, however, is Mr. Oyelowo (pronounced “oh-yellow-oh”), who gained 30 pounds, had his hair razored and styled to mimic the Rev. King’s and mastered the accent, cadence and power of his preaching. He looks and sounds enough like the legendary man that you instantly slip back in time.
No one is criticizing the portrayal of the Nobel Prize winner, but Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, has said that the characterization of the 36th president “flies in the face of history.” In a piece in Politico available on the museum’s website, he calls the two men’s partnership on civil rights “one of the most productive and consequential in American history.”
He continues, “At a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement by suggesting that the president himself stood in the way of progress.”
Wrangling over dramatic liberties and what others have characterized as a problem with tone take nothing away from the historic heart of the story and the ultimate power of watching the color-saturated film footage fade into archival black-and-white images. The movie reminds us that the civil rights pioneer was just 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968, and the news reminds us that his call for nonviolent resistance is still (dolefully) being invoked nearly five decades later.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: email@example.com or 412-263-1632.
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