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Rather than be an ensemble movie about all those involved in the Selma to Montgomery March, this is but another film focused on the role of Black men as the women either play wives, girlfriends or just stay silent in the background.
Trigger Warning(s): Police Brutality
Review (with Spoilers) – Below
Characters & Story
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, voting rights becomes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) focus. Thing is, down in Selma there is already quite a team setup by those of the SNCC, which include John Lewis (Stephan James) and the ever silent Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). However, with Dr. King bringing the media wherever he goes, and Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) needing a kick in his pants to stop putting off the needs and desires of the Black community, those of the SNCC agree to work with Dr. King and the SCLC. Leading to the historic police brutality, overlooking of many of the things the women involved did, and in the end Dr. King continuing his legacy of getting things done by sacrificing himself, and asking others to look into the glory of the future rather than the troubles of the past and present.
What I perhaps loved the most about the film is it didn’t present Martin Luther King Jr. as a saint. He wasn’t all knowing, he wasn’t always this stern figure who held the civil rights movement on his back, and he wasn’t even sometimes the best husband. He was a man who simply had faith in what he was doing, and made a lot of mistakes on the way. Some of which got people killed, lead to him having an affair, and sometimes lead to people questioning his leadership. Yet, as Oyelowo shows, despite the burdens the movement put on his mental state, and despite the doubt he sometimes had, he continued on.
Leading to perhaps the main thing worth praising which is the script. For while, as noted in the criticism, it was a bit shady toward the women in the movement, it does keep you just interested enough to feel invested in what goes on. Outside of the script, and a more diverse depiction of King, maybe you could give some praise to Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, mostly for how she handled Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and MLK’s affair, but outside of that she didn’t do much more than the rest of the women cast.
Which leads into perhaps the main criticism of the film: It undercuts the role all the women involved played in the Civil Rights Movement. Take for example Diane Nash, she throughout the movie barely talks and is usually just there supporting one of the brothers by rubbing their back with a hand or just physically being there. Then, with Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), the only thing we see her do is try to register to vote and then hit a cop when they are protesting and the cops are getting violent. Moving to Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint), again you see someone’s story erased and get this feeling that despite a Black female director and Black female producers, that once more the suffering of Black men is what matters and Black women’s stories are an extension which doesn’t need specific focus.
And that doesn’t just bother me from the standpoint of a person who was interested in seeing the Black women of the movement, since I thought this was to be an ensemble movie, but also it is an issue as a movie goer. For, and correct me if I’m wrong, outside of Belle, there aren’t a lot of dramas starring Black women. Especially ones widely released and which focus on them dealing with racism and other issues which come with being a Black woman, American or not. So for another film to focus almost solely on the male characters, and it being MLK Jr. at that, who is well known in comparison to the women mentioned, it is a damn shame.
Overall: TV Viewing
Selma to me is a disappointment. Not because of the acting, directing, and certainly not the writing, but because it missed a grand opportunity. One which I was hoping for perhaps throughout the whole movie. Especially as the SCLC and SNCC were butting heads. However, all the film presents is the same old history lesson that, if you are American born, likely you have heard over and over. Making the one thing which makes this film stand out is that you see a more human side to King, and get to see the man a bit more than the legend. However, without any real strong performances, and really just a decent enough script to keep you from nodding off, this film is a solid TV Viewing type movie.
Things To Note
I honestly can’t see this winning any major award besides Best screenplay for Paul Webb, even though I would love Ava DuVernay to win for Best Director.