The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and we know what’s weighing on your mind. With eight nominated films, how are you to get enough information to properly kick ass at your Oscar parties? I mean, I suppose you could go see all the films and weigh them against each other, but who has the time and money? Well, no worries. The AGtM team is here to help, by reviewing every film nominated for Best Picture at this year’s awards. You’re welcome.
We continue with Selma.
There is little I can say about Selma that hasn’t already been said in one form or another. The film chronicling the events in Selma, Alabama in 1965 has been widely discussed, criticized, and debated since it was released a few month ago, and its surprisingly few nominations at this year’s Academy Awards is a point of contention that has been beaten to death like so many dead horses. I’m not going to debate the shoulds or shouldn’ts of award nominations, nor do I plan to get very political or delve deeply into the historical accuracy. I don’t understand the larger picture enough to do that. What I will say, though, is that Selma is a damn fine picture, and not seeing it because of something you’ve heard from a critic annoyed with the social commentary or tired of the Oscar debate would be cheating yourself out of a riveting two hours of a well-crafted story, and stirring performances.
Whether or not you like what the film has to say (either about Martin Luther King Jr. , Civil Rights, LBJ, or any other minutia), you cannot deny that the story is compelling; just the fact that it has inspired so much conversation and debate should be evidence of that. What I think a lot of the conversation has overlooked though, is the fact that one of the film’s greatest strengths is in its small scope. Rather than approach the film as a sweeping story of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Selma focuses on a specific place and time, and plays out the beats of those events in as much detail as possible. The structure not only allows the specifically poignant moments to breathe, stretch, and be felt, it gives the entire film a more solid emotional and thematic foundation than one attempting to squeeze years, or even decades, into a brief two hours.
Then there is the depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. himself (played brilliantly by David Oyelowo), one that we don’t see often on screen, and don’t talk about much in the larger discussion of MLK and Civil Rights. This is not the lion of the Civil Rights Movement, but a man with the weight of at least some of the world on his shoulders. This is an MLK who sees his responsibility to the black community as not just a leader but a role model and warrior, but like any leader also understands the struggles that come along with that responsibility. He is not perfect, he makes mistakes (some big, some small), he even gets a lot of people hurt, and a few people killed, but over the course of the film you come to understand his motivations and his convictions, and perhaps come to a new appreciation for those who are able to affect change in the world, because that road is long, hard, and lonely.
The way I see it, the film has a few major points to make, which I believe it makes very clearly. For one, it wants to tell a slightly different story about Civil Rights, one about what happens after you win that first big battle. The major discussion within Selma is that just because the President signed the Civil Rights Act doesn’t mean that racism and segregation were magically over. There were still battles, many battles, to be fought, and those victories would be hard won. The second major theme: that peaceful protest is not easy, and that in order to affect change you have to make noise. The film takes the time to highlight how bigoted Americans were just as instrumental in bringing about the very change they feared as those who marched, and protested, and lost their lives.
Selma is a film with a lot to say, as you can probably tell, but it has been put together in such a way that you never necessarily feel like you are being preached to (except in the scenes where there is literal preaching). It seeks, not necessarily to educate, but to start a conversation about race, sacrifice, and what it takes to change the mind of a nation. It’s just too bad most of those conversations will happen between those of us who already hold those opinions.