How Do You Review A Film Like Selma?

I am not an industry professional or an expert historian. I am someone, however, who does not generally intend to write movie reviews. I do write them, from time to time, but I don’t always intend to. I would rather simply just talk about a film, or tell you how I feel about it. Maybe not all of it, some parts of it. The parts I want to remember, or remind the readers of. Recommend to. I just want to pour thoughts out on the page, and if that is a review, then so be it. I have nothing against movie reviews, that would be impossible with the amount I read. When Selma opened to a chorus of extremely positive reviews across the board, people were already talking about it. And now we are singing its praises, a film about a crucial time in history, and could well reshape a part cinema’s own history (I don’t currently recall another motion picture about Dr Martin Luther King Jr).

And to be blunt, distorting a few facts, negative journalism, Guild branches failing to scream about this movie, screenwriter credits, Oscar nominations – should not change how you feel about a movie. If you see it. Selma is a motion picture about Martin Luther King, the voting rights in America, a truly pivotal and essential part of history, whether black, white, American, a man, a woman. Really, you only require to be a human being, for this to be important. So how do I review a film like Selma?


Well, for a start, see the film. Which I did, and now have. From the opening frame of King (David Oyelowo) speaking, which seemed like he was doing so directly to me, the movie Selma had my attention. It had my full attention. Minutes later it almost stopped my breath. Sometimes you cannot possibly choose to invest in a motion picture, because before you know it you are already right there.

Selma has no particularly huge, epic scenes in terms of throwing us off course or forcefully trying to impress us. Ava DuVernay’s direction is so airtight, at times, just simply scenes of characters talking, it felt like I was seeing a talented new brand of film-making. And the picture is not simple in terms of non-effective. The framing, and everything within that frame, at any given time, is immaculate. Nothing fancy, just precision story-telling. There is not one bit of fat on this meat. The limited use of slow motion, the toned down music, and unconventional camera angles, only adds to this. A real sense of being there, like an expertly made documentary about the stuff you know, but gladly told to you again. Never tedious, never does it slow down. And it is not particularly rushed either in it’s overall pacing. Each scene is meticulously constructed, and yet casually executed, without ever showing off.

In light of the awards season, once again leading up to the American dream that is the Academy Awards, we have ourselves a controversy. Selma was not being acknowledged by the Guilds (you know, Directors, Actors, Producers, Writers etc) because apparently nobody sent them the movie to watch. But also the assumption that AMPAS (who did receive the screeners – again apparently) would sort this mess out, and lavish Selma with nominations, was false. It received just the two nominations in the end. Two. Best Song. Best Picture. Two nominations. The internet, and most of the universe, at or around that moment of the announcement, froze. It was like in those old westerns when a cowboy would walk through the swing doors, and everyone in that bar would freeze, a brawl would cease, the barman would stop wiping the bar down, a glass would fall and break. You know, like those movies Clint Eastwood used to make. With that revelation in mind, how am I meant to review a film like Selma?

There are some truly heart-warming and genuine human moments in Selma, as there should be. And they too are never overplayed. When King seems to express the same sort of remorse when Kennedy was shot as he does to the more recent death of Malcolm X – by merely mentioning them together in a speech. When Lyndon Johnson and King speak on the phone following the murder of the two whites that had joined the march. The president gracefully states he rang their wives, to which King just retorts that he had not rang Jimmie Jackson’s family, the young black kid that was gunned down shamefully by authorities. It is not a particularly proud moment for anyone, but I had an urge to applaud right there and then. King consoling a grieving Cager Lee. Johnson telling Wallace he does not want to be associated with him in the history books. Great scenes, too many to list. Never does this erupt into melodrama or thriller territory. This is a graceful film, of conversations, of meetings, of relations – a film of, and about, progress.

I perhaps ought to steer clear of the politics then. And the bad-mouthing, and the disagreements, and anything that will sway my viewpoint. I mean, until recently I had not seen the movie. I was not around in 1965. And I am a white, non-American. So surely I can be objective about a movie like this. Is that what the Academy did when they were voting? Did they decide that Selma was not that good a movie after all? That, for example, the director Ava DuVernay, a black woman, and the actor playing Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a black Englishman, David Oyelowo, were not that good enough also? Maybe they did not get the screeners. Maybe they have not seen it. But hang on a minute, how many of the Academy actually saw 12 Years A Slave, a movie about a crucial period of history for black America, and voted for it as the Best Picture of the year? Ooh, controversial. How am I going to review a film like Selma now?

The magnificently subtle David Oyelowo allows us to see the man behind the icon. He is quiet and withdrawn at times, but always exuding a power and strong influence (you sure can tell Oyelowo studied hard at that voice and accent). He reassures his followers, as well as allowing them to feed him with ideas and perspective. King’s negotiating prods at President Johnson are also delivered effectually. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as Johnson, wavering between laws and barriers and doing the right thing. Tim Roth’s Governor George Wallace, and the state troopers in Alabama, do not spill into stereotypical villains, but do proceed with smug iron-fists. As King’s wife Coretta King, Carmen Ejogo radiates the screen. But rather than steal scenes, her presence acts perfectly as a companion to King himself but also the struggle he is embracing – she brings it back home. In fact all the supporting ensemble play their parts, realistically and flawlessly.

Selma made me want to celebrate this movie, this honest depiction of history. At times as well it felt that even though the whites had the power and the rights, they were in fact the moral minority. Dare I say I was a little ashamed to be white? But this only adds to the impact. As I was watching it, those violent events or ignorant attitudes from fifty years ago, I was almost being reminded, with bewilderment, that this happened. It is an vital part of history, but as a movie experience it took a grip of me, and did not let go. Watching over the shoulders of these giants, seeing their world change before our eyes. And the ending, every single aspect of that final sequence made for an incredibly powerful, emotional crescendo. Not sure there has been a more exceptional closing of a movie all year. Glory, hallelujah. Glory, hallelujah.



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One thought on “How Do You Review A Film Like Selma?

  1. I can say that I agree that Selma was one of the more precisely shot and edited films of 2014. Right up there with Gone Girl for it's exacting sentiment and purpose of it's story telling.
    Those scenes especially when they're banding together to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, faced with the opposition of the racist police and townspeople were so tense, I physically leaned forward in my seat.
    Anyway, yes, well said Robin. 🙂

    Like

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