Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Catching Up: Selma
Selma never forgets that the events surrounding the march were not MLK's alone, nor does it build him into a guiding saint. Instead, the film finds the importance of people, of groups coming together, of politicians in flux and the uncertainties even of the man who found himself leading the charge. It's a testament to the direction that the film is never a flat MLK memorial and that it doesn't feel like a holy object; stagnant, engraved with gospel truths. Selma is lived in, real, broken, and filled with miniature portraits of people who complicate and humanize history in a way much different than what we're taught in our textbooks. As it does this, it's interesting that even towering figures like MLK and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) almost become afterthoughts, power players overshadowed by the turmoil experienced by regular folks and the violence of that fateful day on the bridge. Director Ava DuVernay approaches her subjects with a sort of naturalism, elegantly matching thematic pieces and shreds of character so that the viewer understands the consequences of action or inaction. As she does so, she widens the scope of the story while making it look incredibly easy and true. Perhaps this is why it was so easy for people to overlook her direction, not to mention David Oyelowo's powerful performance. They each disappear against the power of the film and the presence of the character, it's almost too perfect, too documentarian to feel like a constructed fiction. It's no excuse, but that's the only way I can think to even begin to explain the film's relative absence in this year's awards season: Selma just isn't showy enough. It opts for subtlety, quiet realism, and intelligence. We forget what kind of work it takes for a film to feel emotionally true. Not simply dramatic or interesting, but emotionally true. This is something that Boyhood succeeded at as well, but Selma's "genre" position as a biopic is interesting in its own right: thought the film has something to show us and to teach us, it doesn't hit us over the head with what it wants us to understand. DuVernay remembers that events involve people, they are not one person, and that a person can be a hero, but is still a person first.