Selma

SelmaTitleDavid Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Andre Holland as Andrew Young
Stephen James as John Lewis
Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson
Tim Roth as George Wallace
Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover

Despite how I’m rating it, I wasn’t able to enjoy this movie that much. The reason is because it paused a lot. Not the first time, either. There must be a lot of Netflix subscribers who don’t take care of the discs they rent.

Personal quarrels aside, I can highly rate Selma, even if not quite as much so as some. It tells an important historical tale well and with drama. Definitely one of greats of the docudrama genre.

Selma retells the road to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We begin with a dramatic demonstration of the barriers that were used in the South of old to prevent black people from voting (Time Magazine estimated in the 1950s that only 15% of voting-age southern blacks were actually casting ballots). Civil rights legend Martin Luther King, Jr. visits the White House and asks President Lyndon Baines Johnson to put the termination of these barriers on his immediate agenda. But LBJ doesn’t believe this to be realistic so soon after the legislation that ended white-only places. LBJ does suggest that MLK support the anti-poverty legislation that is in the works before getting to the voting rights bill. MLK is less than convinced of this promise, so he returns to the South, where his group plans its next move. Instead, the Alabama state militia strikes a civil rights march as though the protesters were armed gangsters, forcing the hands of all concerned.

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Long live the King!

The performances are strong with two very damaging exceptions. David Oyelowo is a perfect MLK — idealistic, peace-minded, hopeful, and passionate. He really should have been nominated for an Oscar. The other performances are very strong, except Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace. They are British actors playing politicians of the American South and man can you tell!

The drama also works. Writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay know when to play down the tension but also when the time is right to heighten it. In particular, the scene in which the protestors are brutalized by the Alabama militia is a true classic in the horror that is unfolding!

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Alabama militiaman or member of the SS?

The biggest criticism of this film is the historical accuracy. LBJ is portrayed as a cowardly politician who in chains is pulled towards another significant civil rights bill. Many historically minded people have argued that this wasn’t right, that he was more supportive than this movie makes him appear. Despite being otherwise positive towards it, civil rights hero Andrew Young has said that Selma makes the relationship between LBJ and MLK look more rocky than it really was. And if you can’t trust Young, who can you trust?

However — and maybe this is too accepting of low standards — this is no more inaccurate than I have come to expect from Hollywood. Zero Dark ThirtyThe Butler, and American Sniper all also erred when it came to accuracy. It should be noted that Hollywood has always gotten wrong its portrayal of Presidents in not making Congress as important to the business of this country. Harry Truman, for example, was a President who clashed with Congress constantly and often lost (see the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act), yet that’s MIA in HBO docudrama Truman. Historical accuracy is a problem and will continue to be so with Hollywood, I’m afraid.

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“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, my best friend: the camera.”

Though not perfect, Selma does do a  well-enough job at bringing this historical tale to life.

Overall: 8 out of 10

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