Directed by Ava DuVernay
2014 Historical Drama
2 hours 8 minutes
From Paramount Pictures
Cuba Gooding Jr.
It's a beautifully-realized movie... compellingly told, artfully directed, mesmerizingly photographed and superbly acted by all involved. It's a film one can sink one's teeth into and for those of us alive with a brain engaged at the time, it's a trip back to painfully troubling times that resulted in history-making events.
Those times were a wakeup call for me. I must have been doing a little sleepwalking because the civil rights movement hadn't quite found a place in my brain until I heard Harry Belafonte speak at some rally about the importance of getting informed and involved. I probably owe most of my awakenings on human rights to movie stars... Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Burt Lancaster, even Charlton Heston, more liberal in those days than conservative. It was not easy for my ears to remain open being part of a rather hostile Republican family on the subject of civil rights but my movie star heroes turned the tide. And then so did Martin Luther King. I was drawn to his eloquent speeches, so passionate, so spellbinding, so urgent.
I have long hoped there would be a film like this... one that tells the plight honestly and with conviction. But of course, if one listens to the rumblings out there, there was too much made-up stuff for this film to be taken seriously. And they say it as if stuff hasn't been made up in movies before or won't be again. And I am speaking here of films based on true events.
Helping to propel this film forward are the chats between King and then-President Lyndon Johnson. What we see is that King is continually thwarted in his attempt to get Johnson to give voting privileges to blacks. This wasn't simply so they could vote for the people of their choice but so that as voters they could serve on juries and bring about fairer verdicts to their black brothers and sisters. The film would lead us to think that while Johnson was sympathetic, he was more concerned with his war on poverty than voting issues for blacks. He turned down King's requests repeatedly, saying his plate was too full to tackle another big-ticket item.
We are also led to believe that when LBJ did finally change his mind and side with King on a number of issues, it was because he did not want to be aligned in any way, shape or form with the hate-mongering Alabama governor, George Wallace.
Today's squawkers are saying no, no, wait a minute, LBJ agreed with King right off and secured those voting rights. Hmmm. I have not visited the LBJ Presidential Library nor read any bios on him nor seen Randy Quaid's portrayal of him nor received any perfumed notes from Linda Bird or Lucy Baines, but really? Who cares? Shut up. Who is not shutting up is Joseph Califano, Jr. who was LBJ's top assistant for domestic affairs after LBJ and King came to an agreement. So he wasn't there and maybe he got it wrong but I still say, who cares? It's a minor point really and neither takes away from the quality of the material nor adds anything grievous to it.
What we do know is that there was more than one march and if the president gave in to King the first time he was approached what need would there have been to have another march and put more people in harm's way?
What Califano asks for this egregious fiction is that Oscar voters don't award Selma with its best picture honor. And it is on that note that I smell a rat... a big, fat, dead rat and one that is white and Republican.
Smear campaigns are nothing new in Tinseltown. They have gone on for years. Think A Beautiful Mind, too, because John Nash was purportedly anti-semitic and the filmmakers didn't tell us that. Horror of horrors! Well, too bad, folks, Mind won best picture anyway as did the based-on-true-events Argo, with an entire ending that was apparently manufactured. Oscar folks don't always get uppity about purported inaccuracies; sometimes it's simply about the subject matter. If it's been nominated for best picture but the fat-cat voters, don't like the subject, they start smearing and go all out to get something else voted for best picture. Think Brokeback Mountain. Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar did include much about the FBI chief's homosexuality and there was hell to pay for that, too, because we don't really know that. Thank goodness Selma mentioned King's womanizing and neglect of his family or there'd be hell to pay for that one.
So yeah, it could be about the Johnson camp aching for truth or it could be the Oscar folks getting their panties all bunched or maybe we can include the option that it's simply hateful whites, the same types that clubbed and beat all those innocent blacks (and whites who supported their cause) back in 1964-65. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to think such haters are still up to their same old crap. Saying kind or decent things about black people, whether they're presidents or unarmed blacks on our city streets, is just not something they can wrap their brains around. I supposed denying people voting rights hasn't happened since the 60s either. Some of us aren't surprised and shouldn't be that they want to find something to pick at about this fine film.
And why is it so fine? Obviously a compelling historical story about an important time in American history heads the list of attributes. It is also an insightful portrait of an American hero, containing a few of his speeches that give me goosebumps.
This film is helmed by a woman directing only her third feature and she does so with much clarity and of course passion. It is about the quest for voting rights and the marches and does not delve into issues before that or continue after it. It is illuminating and even surprising in its telling and certainly at times hard to watch.
Oscar nominations come out this week and I'd be very surprised if David Oyelowo's (oh-yellow-oh) name is not on it. He breathes life back into Dr. King with a riveting performance. Equally lofty is Carmen Ejogo's portrayal of Coretta Scott King. Her screen time isn't a lengthy as Oyelowo's but she is no less splendid. (It's also the second time she's played Mrs. King... the first was in a 2001 TV movie, Boycott.) It is incredible, really, how much both actors look like the Kings.
Kudos, too, to Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as the fulsome Wallace. It didn't escape my notice that all four leads are Brits.
It is noted that Oprah Winfrey (who also had a brief role) was one of several producers and so was Brad Pitt.
Fast Out of the Gate