Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Catching Up: Selma

Though I'm months divorced from my screening and thousands of pages behind in contributing anything to the cultural commentary surrounding Selma, I can't let it drop.  Many films like Selma - those detailing important sociopolitical events or human rights issues - are examples of vehicles we're told we should find important, but which often feel like problematic films.  Maybe they read too saccharine or maybe they smudge truths in ways that are too pointed, maybe they just aren't cinematic.  By contrast, Selma is a film that may actually be important.  It's a rare film, a mixed biopic that focuses on a pivotal moment associated with its chosen figure (here, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. as played by David Oyelowo) instead of being driven solely by that figure.  What struck me while watching it is how thoroughly the film avoided the "sacred cow" treatment of the man at its center -- something that other films this year (like The Imitation Game) fall just short of

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.

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