Film Review: Selma

It tells the story of one of the most pivotal moments in American political and civil history. It’s been nominated for Best Picture at the soon to be announced Academy Awards and yet there seems to be more talk about the lack of recognition for David Oyelowo in the leading role than for how potentially good this film may be.

Also, part of me is slightly ashamed to say that before I knew anything about Selma, before I saw the trailer, or connected it back to Martin Luther King and the very important Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1960s, for some reason I had painted a picture in my head that this was a horror film. An imaginary mash up of Salem’s Lot and Carrie. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. And so, when I got to see the trailer, realised the monumental mistake I had made and that in fact, Selma was a portrayal of a groundbreaking moment in American history, and with some Oscar buzz floating around, I owed it to the film to see it. Ignoring the fact that the trailer looked impressive and emotional as well.

Perspective Issues - Selma

Sadly though, the film just doesn’t quite live up to what I expected. In terms of Civil Rights powerhouse, or bizarre Steven King horror fusion! The Best Picture Oscar nomination in my view, being more a tertiary nod than a serious contender . There is just something about it that feels lacking. Misguided. It’s almost as though the team behind the film are frightened by the power in their hands. By the reaction it could get. The film isn’t weak but it doesn’t pack any punch either. It’s very much a case that it ticks along completely fearful of upsetting anyone. It wants to tell the story truthfully but it doesn’t want to stir up any emotion. It simply ends up sitting in this middle ground where you never feel you can really trust anything. You never really feel you understand the exact motive behind anyone’s move.

And this detachment from the actual story isn’t helped by the style of photography used to bring it to life. It has moments where it plays around with the depth of field, foreshortening everything and it left me feeling like I was looking at it through glass, through a bubble. Everything mottled out of proportion and seemingly hyper real. The world suddenly felt wrong. Misshapen.

One criticism you cannot level at the film though is the pacing. It’s not overly long – just over two hours – and while it does feel like it’s got legs, it never really drags. It gets slightly repetitive but somehow you don’t mind. I think it’s because the film never felt stationary. The story was always moving, even if the direction was at times, sideways. You always felt it knew where it was going and was never lost.

David Oyolewo - Selma

Talking of knowing where it’s going, now would be a good point to bring up Oyelowo. While a lot has been made of his apparent “snub” at the awards ceremonies, I actually agree with the lack of nomination. His performance is transformative but not to the same level as Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Often his character appears scared and overawed. There were huge parts of the film where I just didn’t buy into him as Martin Luther King. I will accept that I know virtually nothing about King apart from snippets of info picked up in passing, but even with a basic mental image to work from he just felt wrong. He just didn’t inspire confidence.I spent a lot of the film thinking that he just lacked the conviction in his part. His voice never quite influential enough. Never quite having the crack of passion or change of frequency that subconscious emotion produces when commanding a stage. He sounds like Martin Luther King in tone but not it commitment.

However, the longer the film ran, the more I started to marry my lack of acceptance to a panic I sensed in Oyelowo as to the enormity of the role and the importance of the character. This man is so pinnacle to Civil Rights history, that you can almost see Oyelowo’s eyes draining under expectation. I felt as though he was never able to relax into character. While I didn’t know how the story ends, I constantly felt that he did. He doesn’t look or feel organic, he seems to lack the edge of responsive spontaneity. He feels like an actor, looking the part while ticking off lines.

Racia Violence - Selma

I have an even bigger, and stranger problem with the film itself though. I really don’t get exactly who or what it is trying to say. It flirts condensed and confused between looking directly at Martin Luther King the person, the events that took place in Selma and the grander discussion on American politics, and the racism that marred manifesto and structure at the time. Never quite sure which deserves greater scrutiny or importance. And when this is parred up to the dividing subject matter, I just found it strangely uncomfortable. Ignoring my thoughts regarding an apparent deftness in narrative conviction as to not offend; as part of the post segregation generations, it just isn’t a world I can believe anyone lived through, accepted or acted the way they did. It actually makes me ashamed to see people treating each other so inhumanely and abusing each other as freely and without remorse as they do. I actually withdrew from the film because it upsets me that this took place. And while I’m a realist, I appreciate that oppression happened, and still does. Violence and minoritising simply the tools of the weak, to see it set out so binary challenged my overly tinted  and simplistic way of life.

It’s a massively important story, something we should never forget. People need to remember what happened, why and to be accountable for their actions. But in the same way that the horrors of war don’t need laying bare, I personally think there are more appropriate ways to portray these events. Selma, needed to go hard and really pack some emotion into the story, to make you repulse at how a racism was condoned and executed but instead just gave you the facts and hid itself away behind the mirage of character drama.

It’s a good, interesting, if difficult film but it deserved to be so much, much more.

8 out of 10 stars (8 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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