Directed by Ava DuVernay, US, 2014
Selma is an important, exceedingly well made film. It tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches and their role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, mostly from the perspective of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo).
The film has a powerful story to tell, and it does a fantastic job doing so. The performances are excellent and scenes such as the “Bloody Sunday” attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge are portrayed with the proper emotional resonance.
Any review of Selma at this time begs the question of why the film didn’t receive more love from the Academy. The film has gotten universal acclaim from critics. It re-tells an important event in American history in an epic and sweeping manner at a time when the sacrifices and accomplishments of Selma are particularly relevant. This type of thing is usually catnip to Academy voters.
It’s hard to pinpoint why, beyond inside-industry campaigning reasons, Selma only got a couple of nominations from the Academy. One of the issues may be that it doesn’t neatly fit into one of the forms that have been preferred by Oscar voters over the past decades. It isn’t quite like a biopic on the scale of Gandhi (1982), Ray (2004), or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) since it focuses on events rather than on Dr. King’s character and background. His personal struggle through the events provides a center to the film, but the film does little to explore his life outside of that context.
It doesn’t fit neatly in the historical epic box either. Like Lincoln (2012), it has a specific focus on the events of one piece of a larger story. It succeeds because it doesn’t try to tell the entire story of the Civil Rights Movement in two hours, but this makes it unlike the sweeping historical epics of yesteryear.
I would argue that this isn’t a bad thing. Its laser focus on the events of the Selma to Montgomery Marches rather than individual characters or the Civil Rights Movement as a whole allows it to be powerful and, for the most part, historically accurate.
While Selma has had critics via-a-vis its historical accuracy, it’s far more accurate than most historical epics that 1) focus on the biography of one historically important character or 2) try to tell the story of an entire movement. The criticism is centered around the portrayals of LBJ’s relationship with J. Edgar Hoover and his partnership with Dr. King. After seeing the film, this criticism seems like a mild quibble when compared to what Gandhi (1982) or other notable biopics get wrong about the historical record. Even the classic Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) takes artistic liberties with history, and it could have been just as compelling if it only used court records as its screenplay.
Perhaps the Academy is looking for something that pushes the artistic boundaries of cinema. While Selma is an exceptionally well made film, it is quite conventional in its storytelling. DuVernay chooses to establish Dr. King as the central perspective of the story early on, establishes the emotional and historical stakes immediately, uses reaction shots to shift the perspective to audience, and ends the film in a fairly standard way. Again, this isn’t a bad thing – not all films need to push the artistic boundaries of the medium. There are many great films that only work inside of existing conventions.
My opinion is that it is between Selma and Boyhood for Best Picture. The other nominees feel too much like performance pieces for the non-actor branches to really get behind them. I’ll do a “tale of the tape” between those two during my usual Oscar week coverage, but in the meantime, go see them both.
You might like Selma if: You wish to see an emotionally resonant historical drama.
You might not like Selma if: You feel the only way to convey history is through the medium of documentary.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe