“The civil rights movement was a movement sustained by music.” – President Barack Obama
THERE IS nothing that can diminish the epic story told in Ava DuVernay‘s Selma, including missing nominations in multiple award ceremonies, the latest the SAG awards. The popularity of the film with moviegoers can be seen through the high rating on Rotten Tomatoes online, as well in sold out theaters and word of mouth raves. Paramount had challenges, because the final film was delivered late, though that’s not the only issue with Selma, which has been a critical success as well.
I dissent here.
Selma deserves the widespread acclaim for the history it tells. You can read reviews lauding the efforts of the filmmakers across the media. They’re not wrong, but they also miss a dynamic part of the story that went untold.
What happened in Selma, including the events surrounding it and the temperature of the country at the time, deserved more than it received from Ms. DuVernay and the screenwriter, Paul Webb. The controversy around screenwriting credit has also garnered a lot of chatter, but the film’s flaws belong to them both.
One in particular is how President Lyndon Johnson’s role is portrayed.
All this material was publicly available to the producers, the writer of the screenplay and the director of this film. Why didn’t they use it? Did they feel no obligation to check the facts? Did they consider themselves free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story? – Joseph Califano
DuVernay was blunt about her story and the movie itself has a disclaimer that it’s not a documentary, which those staying through the full credits can read. This was her story to tell, as she felt it through her own community, so historians are left to clean it up.
As I’ve already written, Zero Dark Thirty faced the same onslaught over torture, which cost the film, its star, Jessica Chastain, as well as the director, Kathryn Bigelow, too.
David Oyelowo is a brilliant actor, as we saw in The Butler. When in the throes of delivering the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially in the final scene of the film, Oyelowo is magnificent. There are just way too many quiet, restrictive moments, starting from the top of the film, that take up too much space, with very few moments where the audience is allowed to spy on King as the man of unbridled fire and passion he so obviously was and has been written about through history. This was a failure of the screenplay, as well as the director, who took Oyelowo as Dr. King through a very tight emotional hallway, where he simply wasn’t allowed to breathe fire into his character through private moments.
Complicated character collisions are part of being human, regardless of race or gender. Leaders are often people with ferocious, even unseemly, egos that reveal their weaknesses. Their rages and emotional infirmities often acting as the valve that releases what stays contained in public moments, all of which allows them courage of character leading to fearless consequences of risk. The humanness of this invaluable to be seen in character studies like Selma.
The biggest jolt in Selma was the stunning choice of DuVernay to forego the music of the civil rights movement itself, which is historic and has been recounted in many, many articles.
I couldn’t get passed this, which was made more frustrating at the end when Oyelowo’s King gives the speech that should be heard as the crescendo of an era that was led by the music itself. Variety weighed in on Jason Moran’s scoring, calling it an “understated approach”.
Foregoing the music of the civil rights era made for a sterile silence that was a choice by DuVernay that did a disservice to the subject, the history, and the story being told. You simply cannot place the events of Selma in silence for dramatic affect, placing music carefully for muted affect, and expect anyone who held on tightly to the songs as comfort and inspiration not to feel cheated.
The “snubs” are still likely due to the producers of Selma blowing the timetable to get their film viewed by those voting, as has been reported. Who knows, the furor over the film could end up aiding them when Oscar weighs in.
Because of the DVD timetable, [Paramount] focused on screenings for voters in New York and L.A. The screener issue was underlined when “Selma” was a surprise no-show in Producers Guild nominations. The movie opened in a limited run Dec. 25, widening Jan. 9. Other Christmas debuts, including “American Sniper,” did send screeners in time, but the prints were ready earlier, sources confirm.
In fact, BAFTA gave the film zero nominations, though voters were sent the screeners.
“Selma” screened Nov. 11 at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, but the filmmakers pointed out it was not a finished print. It’s possible guild members saw “Selma” on the bigscreen and didn’t love it.
As much as I wanted to love this film, the missing music of the civil rights era left a gaping hole in this history being told. Especially as I choked back tears watching scenes of the horrific beatings of African Americans, as well as white Americans, without the pressure valve and healing inspiration of the civil rights songs.
The story DuVarney chose to tell in Selma should still be seen by everyone. It’s even being screened for young people for free in some areas.
“If I saw Ava today, I’d say, ‘You know what? F— ’em. You made a very good film, so feel good about that, and start working on the next one.'” – Spike Lee [The Hollywood Reporter]
Spike Lee’s correct.
Ava DuVernay will get financing for other films and deservedly so, now collaborating on a film about Katrina.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (first video below) still sends a chill of history down the spine of anyone conjuring up the times before Selma, explaining why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had no choice but to overcome and keep on marching, as so many still do today, because the work’s not done.