[Screen It]

"SELMA"
(2014) (David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A civil rights leader must contend with opposition, pushback and violence as he tries to organize a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest the fact that black Americans don't have equal voting rights.
PLOT:
It's early 1965 and despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act a year earlier, black citizens in the American South, such as Annie Lee Cooper (OPRAH WINFREY), still face racism so vehement that they find it all but impossible to register to vote. While members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, such as James Forman (TRAI BYERS) and John Lewis (STEPHAN JAMES), think they're making progress, they can't have much success, what with Alabama Governor George Wallace (TIM ROTH) happily allowing the likes of racist sheriff Jim Clark (STAN HOUSTON) to keep suppressing the black folks.

As a result, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (DAVID OYELOWO) has been pressing Lyndon B. Johnson (TOM WILKINSON) to do something, but the President is reluctant for a number of reasons. FBI director J. Edger Hoover (DYLAN BAKER) isn't pleased with King and sets out to bring him and his movement down and wiretaps all involved. That also includes anonymous harassing phone calls, something that doesn't sit well with Martin's wife, Coretta (CARMEN EJOGO), who's becoming increasingly tired of his work keeping him away from their family, and worries that something bad is going to happen to him.

Undeterred by any of that, King decides to travel to Selma and join members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including Reverend Hosea Williams (WENDELL PIERCE) and James Bevel (COMMON), among many others. Their plan is to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest -- non-violently -- the lack of voting rights for blacks. But their first attempt is met by brutal violence at the hands of Sheriff Clark and his men as well as state troopers. Determined to succeed, they then plan to try again, all while various power players watch on from a distance, unsure of what will happen next.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
I believe it was the day after our press screening of "Selma" -- director Ava DuVernay's brilliantly helmed look at just a piece of Martin Luther King Jr.'s crusade to tackle racism in America -- that the grand jury involved in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting. With the announcement stupidly being released at night, that sparked off violent protests where stores were looted, some establishments and cars set on fire and so on.

And all I could think was that we, as a country, really haven't gotten that far in the intervening half century, and that King's mantra and philosophy of non-violent protest has obviously been dismissed by a number of said protestors who likely left the former civil rights leader dismayed in the great hereafter or at least spinning in his grave. It certainly got me thinking that this film should be required viewing for both white and black viewers who've ignored, forgotten or never known about the man and legend, not to mention what our own government is capable of doing in terms of watching its citizens, both back then and even today.

Thankfully, DuVernay's film never feels preachy, self-righteous or any other quality that often permeates the work of filmmakers like Spike Lee who let their emotions get the best of their storytelling abilities. Working from a script by Paul Webb, the former film marketer and distributor -- who could very well likely be the first African-American woman to receive an Oscar nomination for direction -- focuses on just a few months in early 1965.

That's when King (a superb David Oyelowo) arrives in the titular location with the desire of leading a peaceful march from there to Montgomery, Alabama with hopes of persuading the powers that be -- including LBJ (Tom Wilkinson thankfully not trying too hard to look or sound like the President, unlike the related distraction that occurred in "The Help") -- to stop racial discrimination when it comes to voting. An early scene in the film featuring Oprah Winfrey (who also serves as one of the movie's producers) shows us just what black folks had to deal with in the racially charged South, and that's what King and his team of advisors and supporters is determined to change.

Their efforts obviously led to the Voting Rights Act, but not before the infamous "Bloody Sunday" of March 7th where local and state police beat hundreds of peaceful protest marchers, an ugly part of American history that DuVernay recreates with unflinching realism and horror. Such violence worries King's wife, Loretta (an equally terrific Carmen Ejogo), and that tension only adds yet another strain to their already frayed marriage.

Dr. Evil, a.k.a. J. Edgar Hoover (briefly portrayed by Dylan Baker), wants to use that to his advantage and thus not only coordinates wiretapping and related surveillance of them and King's right-hand team, but also apparently is behind harassing and intimidating if anonymous phone calls. That's all while the protestors must contend with a racist sheriff (Stan Houston) who seemingly answers to no one, including Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) who happily lets the local fuzz do his bidding for him.

Performances from the supporting actors and actresses are solid across the board, but this is obviously the big breakout role for Oyelowo who's previously appeared in racism-themed pics such as "The Butler" and "The Help." While he initially doesn't strike one as a perfect physical representation of the real man, it didn't take long for that thought to evaporate and his performance to completely captivate yours truly.

I'm pleased that the writer and director didn't attempt to tackle King's entire life in standard biopic form, as that not only would have created the usual episodic feel (and likely necessitated a much longer version than the current two hours), but it would have shortchanged this important segment of the man's work and legacy.

It's just too bad that fifty years later things aren't as perfect as they should be in terms of racism or in the way that some people protest. "Selma" shows the way it should be and the sacrifices those daring to challenge the status quo had to endure. It's one of the best films of 2014 and thus rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed November 24, 2014 / Posted December 25, 2014


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