During this honorable, and well-intentioned, motion picture, I kept reminding myself that it was about the historic 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. So, it was okay, if the extra-marital dalliances of Martin Luther King Jr. were only briefly touched on–because that’s not what the story was about. And I forgave it for downplaying Lyndon Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement–because it never intended to be a biography of our 36th President. So, there are some issues with “Selma”–many of them negligible. But I can’t help but feel that it should’ve been a bit less neat. Some more nitty-gritty would’ve helped in certain areas. So while Ava DuVernay’s film manages to be a decent one, it still falls short of greatness in my eyes. I hate to say it too–because I wanted to love it.
“Selma” opens with the harrowing depiction of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That atrocious act of terrorism mutilated and killed 4 little African-American girls. Meanwhile, fifty-something Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, who also executive produced the film) is shown attempting to register to vote in Selma, Alabama– and being denied by a white registrar after he poses some impossible qualifying questions to her. We’re introduced to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a fine David Oyelowo, in a performance unfortunately ignored by Oscar) around the time he’s accepting his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Soon, Dr. King is planning the Selma to Montgomery protest march, with a focus on voting rights–while a reluctant President Johnson (a strong Tom Wilkinson) tries to dissuade King’s timing.
There have been some complaints about “Selma” fudging history a bit, and it’s something I’ve been vocal about, regarding quite a few movies based on true events (see “Argo”). I’m not going to take “Selma” to task for this however, because the thing that bothered me most about the film, was its fear of getting its “hands dirty”. Too much clean, by-the-numbers, historical reenactment here–and not enough fire and brimstone. You know what’s the finest thing in the movie? The rousing, Oscar-winning song “Glory”, by John Legend and Common, which manages to be politically conscious and brave, whereas the film itself chooses to glide and play it safe. If only “Selma” was a bit riskier–it might have been something truly special. Some critics felt it was, but it just misses the mark for me.