Selma gives Martin Luther King, Jr. the Lincoln treatment, and winds up as one of 2014’s best films
The trap many biopics fall into is this: they tell you a dressed-up version of what you already know. They present you with romanticized, overly dramatized stories that take the basic elements of the truth and try to fit it into a familiar Hollywood narrative. Meanwhile, the truly great biopics fully interrogate their subjects, try to really determine who they were as people and the power they had over others. In that respect, Ava DuVernay’s Selma is an extraordinary work that puts most biopics—including those with which it will be competing for awards attention—to shame. This is not the story of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., but a thorough, brutal, and unfortunately timely examination of his role in the civil rights movement and the voting rights marches in 1965 Alabama. It is, quite simply, an example of superb cinematic storytelling that plays within the established biopic rules, but in terms of quality, most other entries in this genre don’t even belong in the same zip code.
(History spoilers ahead.)
The moment I knew I was watching something special came about a third of the way into the film, when David Oyelowo’s Dr. King talks to the grieving grandfather (Henry G. Sanders) of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who was just murdered by a Selma, Alabama police officer. King gives several rousing speeches throughout the film—none of which are King’s actual words, for legal reasons—but never is this character’s role in the movement clearer than when he is left to comfort one man in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. It’s an intimate, emotional, perfectly performed moment between the two actors, and without it, Selma’s King character would probably only feel half-sketched. One of this film’s many triumphs is its ability to take one of the most famous American figures of the 20th century and create a fully formed, flawed, utterly human version that doesn’t rely on obvious tricks to convince audiences of his greatness. Through actually taking him seriously as a person, the case for greatness becomes much more convincing.
Selma also spends a great deal of time focusing on the politics of the era, which isn’t nearly as interminable as that may sound. On the contrary: this was a huge part of what made the movement tick, and King is presented as having a keen understanding of all this. When he isn’t giving speeches or organizing marches with his fellow activists, he is meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) or figuring out how to gain the upper hand over Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in the minds of the American public. In this way, Selma’s most obvious companion in recent years might be Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which similarly focuses on the political maneuvering that had to happen in order for slavery to be abolished. These changes don’t just come out of thin air. In the case of both films, they are led by leaders who aren’t just exceptional public speakers and charismatic leaders, but brilliant politicians who still know how to win even when it isn’t glamorous.
However, DuVernay’s film actually winds up feeling more urgent than Spielberg’s, and that comes from Selma’s uncanny ability to draw parallels between history and current events. When watching the events of the film unfold—the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in particular—it’s hard not to think about recent tragedies such as Ferguson. It is a film that has no business being as relevant as it is, and that makes the violence depicted within sting all the more. While the film ends with a major victory for the movement, Selma makes it clear that this is a war that will continue to be fought for a long time.
This film is also exceptional from a pure filmmaking standpoint, with wall-to-wall brilliant performances that could have easily been distracting in lesser hands, gorgeous cinematography from Bradford Young, and DuVernay showing complete control of the material and themes from start to finish. In broad strokes, everything about Selma seems to suggest a standard Oscar season offering, but the end result is anything but. It’s the kind of film that could only be made by these exact people at this exact time.
Other new releases:
–So after all the hubbub, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview finally got a digital release on Christmas Eve and a limited theatrical release on Christmas Day. The result was a much more publicized event then the original, planned release would have ever been, and that may have wound up hurting its public reception. (Basically, people who would have never seen it otherwise wound up watching it and disliking it, because AMERICA.) There is no doubt this is the weakest thing Rogen and Goldberg have been involved with in a few years, but I had a perfectly fine time with it. It’s an enjoyable little thing that never quite becomes what it could/should have been, but there’s an unhinged energy to its best moments that got to me. It’s a fans-only proposition that accidentally became a headline-maker.
–On the other end of the “buzz” spectrum, you have Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, which seemed to arrive in theaters to precisely zero fanfare and mixed reviews. The latter are deserved, but it has a fascinating subject and a wonderful Amy Adams performance, so any curious film gans might want to look into it once it hits Netflix or some such platform. This is a film with absolutely zero tonal consistency or interest in larger themes, which makes it incredibly frustrating, but it’s also refreshing to see Burton attempt something that doesn’t involve Johnny Depp in a silly hat.
–In the wake of seeing all the smart decisions made by Selma, the standard prestige fare of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken could only feel like a let down. Roger Deakins makes it look fantastic (as he usually does), and Jolie never strays too far off course. The problem is, she goes for a broad summary rather than digging into the material in a significant way, and as a result it never draws the audience in as much as it could. The best thing to come out of this film will likely be Jack O’Connell, who is about to (deservedly) become a massive star.
Next week on the blog: The 30 Best Films of 2014!
Next week I will, at long last, be revealing my picks for the best films of 2014, but I won’t be stopping at some measly top 10 list. I will be listing my picks for the top 30 films of the year, and I will gradually reveal them throughout the week. The posting schedule is as follows:
So prepare yourselves, readers. I know you have spent weeks wondering what movies were good in 2014, and now I am finally prepared to come with answers. As a wise man once said: let’s get ready to rumble.
Trailer of the Week
Well, here’s something. After several years in the wilderness in the wake of I Heart Huckabees, director David O. Russell returned in 2010 with The Fighter, and has since become surprisingly prolific, putting out such successful fare as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. However, Russell wasn’t completely out of work for those six years. In fact, he directed most of a political satire called Nailed, in which Jessica Biel moves to Washington to get involved with politician Jake Gyllenhaal after getting a nail gun to the head. (Yes, really.) Anyway, production was halted in 2008, and Russell walked away. It was expected to disappear forever, but now here it is under the awful name Accidental Love. (It’s also apparently directed by something called “Stephen Greene.”) Make no mistake, this is probably a mess in every way. But I cannot wait.
New to Video/Streaming
I obviously just spent a great deal of time talking about how Selma is one of the best films of 2014, but this week sees the home media and rental release of another great one: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which is every bit as special as you’ve heard. Filmed over the course of 12 years, it tracks the growth of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the ages of 6 to 18. It’s not just about him, though. Linklater brilliantly tracks the maturation and evolution of his mother (Patricia Arquette), father (Ethan Hawke), sister (Lorelei Linklater) and the world around them. There are few huge moments, but therein lies the brilliance. With each perfectly observed interaction, Linklater creates a fully-realized group of characters, and even in its most aimless moments it feels utterly unique and truthful. The cumulative effect is considerable, and unforgettable.