What happens when you put a first-time screenwriter together with a movie publicist-turned director to tell the story of a watershed event in the civil rights movement? Well, hip-hop documentarian Ava DuVernay has turned Paul Webb’s script into a riveting history lesson masquerading as popular entertainment, garnering the film an Oscar nomination as best picture of the year. Most importantly, Selma allows the facts to speak for themselves as it documents a critical turning point in our nation’s self-understanding, warts and all.
David Oyelowo (A Most Dangerous Year, Interstellar, JackReacher) dominates the film as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but there are any number of heroes here, brought to life by numerous black actors and actresses each of whom captures, at a particular moment in their characters’ lives, an individual contribution to the nation’s grasp of the price paid for the American institution of racism. If ever a movie deserved praise for the ensemble acting of its cast, it’s this one.
Selma doesn’t simplify the facts; its very messiness allows the film to accurately portray the daily ebb and flow of events showing the political tug of war between state governments and Washington, the internal battles waged to define the movements strategy and the seat-of-the-pants tactical sessions King and his fellow leaders employed as they responded to a toxic mix of vicious physical abuse and benign political neglect.
Those old enough to have followed the collapse of institutional segregation in the U.S. will find so many telling details in Selma; the cadence of King’s sermons, the disgust with which so many whites greeted the black community’s demand for equality, the taint of communism with which the F.B.I. attempted to smear King’s reputation, the frustration of more militant players within the movement, brutality of local law enforcement and the stalling tactics so frequently employed by our federal government in the long journey from the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregation in schools to the signing of civil rights legislation more than a decade later. DuVernay was less than two years old when the Selma to Montgomery march occurred, yet what a grasp of the event’s meaning she conveys to those born after they occurred… DuVernay and all those involved have not only made a great movie, they’re responsible for a major contribution to our collective understanding of (and responsibility for) this country’s sad and deplorable history of racism.
The Verdict? A mesmerizing drama fashioned from an event in our uneasy racial past that’s best seen in a theater where gasps of audience recognition provide an added dimension to its impact.
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