Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Film: 'Selma'

Powerful film depicting a few months in 1965 in the struggle enacted in American South, led by Martin Luther King, to secure parity of enfranchisement of negroes with whites.
Unremittingly serious, often bleak, sometimes anger-provoking and tear-producing (apart from final jubilatory moments of the campaign's vindication) the film follows the historical tussle between a beleaguered President Johnson, a resolute King who would not water down his demands, and with Governor Wallace of Alabama, stubbornly refusing to accept defeat.

I strongly recall these three characters who regularly appeared on our news bulletins of the time - perhaps not so frequently with the last of these, though we did still hear quite a lot from him. But therein lies some of the film's weakness for me in that I found the patent lack of facial resemblance of Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth to the actual Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace respectively, an almost non-stop distraction. Even the formidable David Oyelowo as King only bears a passing resemblance to whom he was playing. (In one brief scene we also see a J.Edgar Hoover who similarly looked utterly unlike the person I remember, as is plain from photos and film footage of the time.) I'm sure that younger members of the audience, not around or aware of the politics of the time, would not be nearly as troubled on this point as I was.

However, that aside, King's speeches were certainly stirring and powerfully delivered by Oyelowo, despite King's original words having to be paraphrased because it wasn't possible to obtain permission to use them , they having been legally allowed to be used only by Steven Spielberg's company in a film of the subject which never materialised. But it didn't really matter a great deal as the essence was the same and they were profoundly effective.

The savagery with which demonstrations are put down and the brutality of the confrontation by state troopers of the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery are believably and horrifically re-enacted. It would take someone of inhuman emotional detachment not to be profoundly moved by the events. (I actually found myself shaking at one point).

We see Oprah Winfrey (she also being one of the film's producers), several times as Annie Lee Cooper, one of the film's key female demonstrators, though she doesn't have that much to do apart from appearing now and again. The acts of the campaign are virtually entirely male-decided. There's also Cuba Gooding Jnr in two shortish scenes, as well as the increasingly seen Alessandro Nivola, here in a role of still less screen time.

The director is one Ava DuVernay whose first cinema feature this appears to be. She ought to be satisfied with the final product as it achieves what it set out to do.
However, it being such a sombre subject, there was little sense of any light and shade which, admittedly, might not have been appropriate. The film was useful for me in that it 'joined the dots' of events with which I was only sketchily familiar because of the passage of time, though I do remember well the main protagonists of the drama.

It's an accomplished film but I did find it slightly over-bearing in its earnestness. I think those who are ignorant of the events and are prepared to learn some recent history will take away from it rather more than I was able......................6.5.


  1. Ray,
    Another excellent review. I'm not sure if I'll see this movie, not because of the quality but because of the somberness. I didn't see "Twelve Years a Slave" and other "lesson" movies. I know the history, I remember the images. I don't need to be reminded. As to the casting, I always have a problem when the casting directors cast actors who bear little resemblance to the historical figures. It's like casting someone who looks totally unlike Abraham Lincoln as Abraham Lincoln. For LBJ they could have easily cast Randy Quaid who look eerily like LBJ. And George Wallace? I like Tim Roth but he, well first he's an English actor, and secondly there are so many good American actors who look like George Wallace. I always have a problem with miscasting being a distraction for me. Occasionally movies get it right and cast an actor (or actress) who strongly physically resembles the actual historical figure like they did when some smart casting director choose Julianne Moore to play Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, these smart calls are few and far in between.

  2. I didn't enthuse much about seeing this film, to be honest, Ron. It's such a dour subject that I feared it would be heavily 'educational' rather than being a piece of 'entertainment', and that is just what it turned out to be. Of course the story is worth the telling but it's hardly what one might term 'a good night out'.
    It's curious how and why the three main male actors here are all British. All very capable, I've no doubt, but it just seems a bit of a nerve to have the key roles taken for such a pivotal piece of American history by Brits. Why did they do that when, as you say, there could have been numerous American actors willing and able to play the parts?.
    David Oyelowo has suddenly exploded on screen in several recent films (with much deserved praise) after years of being an accomplished theatre actor, so it's always a pleasure to see him. But even so!
    Randy Quaid as LBJ? I would never have thought of that, but you may have a point. He'd certainly have been closer in looks than Tom Wilkinson was.

    Never saw Julianne Moore as Palin, but I can just about imagine it, and I bet she would have been a hoot - the hoot that Palin already is without even having to try..

  3. I think I liked this movie more than you did though your points are all well taken. I was not distracted by the appearance of the actors. I thought Wilkinson captured the essence of LBJ. I liked Roth less as Wallace because neither his appearance nor his demeanor resonated as Wallace for me. Oddly enough, the one area I thought he did well was the accent.

    Selma is actually DuVernay's 3rd feature... 4th if you count a documentary she made in 2008. She won a couple of awards for her previous film; "Middle of Nowhere".

    Quaid played LBJ previously in a made-for-TV biopic and was well received. Last I heard, however, he was still fighting extradition back to the States so it is unlikely he'll be able to work her anytime soon.

    1. Thanks, H.K. As well as Tom Wilkinson's lack of facial resemblance to LBJ my attention also kept being diverted to T.W.'s shoulders! I don't recall the original carrying himself around like that, but as we didn't really see much of Johnson walking around the White House at the time I suppose it might be true.

      I'm happy to accept your word on the accuracy of Tim Roth's accent.

      Should have done deeper research on DuVernay but the name didn't and still doesn't ring any bells for me.

      I must have likewise missed on Quaid's difficulties but once more I defer to your more more informed knowledge.

  4. It's amazing and sad to hear how a film like this triggers still such ire in the States

    1. You'd have thought that surely by now such a mindset would have been put to rest for good. It only emphasises still how far, despite the law, so many people have to go to catch up.

  5. It is such a shame that the King estate is so possessive of the man's words. Words that were meant to help better a society are kept away from the society they were written to help. His message was freedom and equality for all. His estate keeps his words in a prison and locked away from all except those that they approve or can profit from that they approve of. His estate obviously doesn't get the message King himself intended. Seems their bus still has restrictions on who can sit in the front and the rest of us are only allowed to sit in the rear.

    1. Very well put, F.B. This was an opportunity missed - though the makers of 'Selma' can't be blamed. They really tried.
      If another film is made of King's wider life rather than a small slice of it then one can only hope that this sad business will be resolved, but it's not going to happen in a hurry, and probably by the time it is made Spielberg will no longer be making films. Mind you, that could be a blessing as he's over-prone to sentimentalising everything he can.