For me, Selma the movie called to mind Pauline Kael’s astute line about another “black experience” film, the Civil War film Glory….not a great movie but a good movie about a great subject.
And I’ll add that I think Selma is an even better movie about an even better subject.
That being said, the flap about its relative lack of Oscar love this week–and the possible reasons behind it, which involve the mindset of a few thousand people who are about as representative of an average citizen’s perspective as, well, the few thousand people who are in the profession of judging the significance of such things–is more than a bit overdone.
I haven’t seen too many of 2014’s serious award contenders (basically just this and Boyhood). But it wouldn’t shock me, for instance, if there really were five performances better than David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, or five better directorial efforts than Ava DuVerney’s.
That’s nothing against either Selma‘s lead actor or director (or screenwriter, etc). They’re plenty good enough that it also wouldn’t at all surprise me if they were among the year’s best.
But I didn’t feel I was in the presence of some landmark in the history of cinema. Twenty years from now, when we are all once more re-hashing the Academy’s greatest oversights, I doubt this film or its makers are going to join Citizen Kane or John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers as consensus-makers on the standard list of “travesties.”
Basically, Selma is a movie that tries to do a whole lot and–especially by the standards of modern Hollywood–succeeds admirably. It’s got a fine cast, a sturdy script, sure (and occasionally inspired…that Birmingham church bombing scene is everything you’ve heard) direction and, with one very big exception, a riveting, well-chosen soundtrack.
If it keeps threatening to go off the rails, that’s only to be expected when a film is striving for so much while also being true to its vast historical subject–the story of the Selma marches and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act told not simply as cantankerous, skillfully crafted political actions rooted in deeply moral causes (well done as those aspects are), but as a culmination of three hundred and fifty years of Black America’s suffering through the long night and dreaming of a brighter day.
That’s a lot for a movie to take on–almost certainly more than any other American film attempted this year–and for that reason alone, yes, it probably deserved more than just a Best Picture and Best Song nomination (if only because, if it now wins Best Picture, as it might, it will likely be seen as the Academy acting from a sense of White Liberal Guilt, rather than rewarding the film on its considerable merits–like I say, it’s very good, but not the rare film that could make all of that not matter, either now or in hindsight).
But the real shame is that all of this is overshadowing the film’s greatest strengths, and actually obscuring any meaningful debate (as least so far as I can find) of its weaknesses.
Case in point to the latter is the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Though the decision to make his relation with J. Edgar Hoover (a genuine scourge of the Civil Rights era who basically gets a pass here) a bit cozier than it was, is curious and wrong-headed, he’s hardly scripted as the “villain” some have suggested. The more fundamental problem is that Tom Wilkinson, the fine British actor who plays him (and has received near-universal plaudits), doesn’t give him any dimension–he captures LBJ the strong-armer pretty well, but has none of Johnson’s unctuous charm or casual way with obscenity or resemblance to a force of nature. Any time Wilkinson was on screen, I felt like I was watching yet another Brit play yet another Southerner–a trick that hasn’t been pulled off with any panache since Vivien “I understood Blanche but I shouldn’t have played her because it cost me my mind” Leigh literally drove herself bonkers investing a little too much in A Streetcar Named Desire.
And, yeah, it’s a problem elsewhere, too: a big problem with Tim Roth, playing George Wallace as a flat piece of cardboard who couldn’t have gotten himself elected dogcatcher in Eufala; a smaller-but-still-nagging issue with Oyelowo’s King (every bit as Southern as Johnson or Wallace, lest we forget) and Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King (ditto), who are both excellent in general, but lack a certain elementary ease, as if they can’t quite overcome the distance between flesh and iconography. [As Andrew O’Hehir pointed out, in one of the more even-handed reviews of the film on Salon.com, it’s become a rather strange situation when such significant, and specifically American, roles (same thing happened with last year’s 12 Years a Slave, which was even directed by a Brit) keep not being played by American actors….just what, if any, deeper significance there might be, I’ll leave to others to debate, though if the track record of Americans, including actual southerners, playing southerners, is any indication of future performance, we certainly aren’t any worse off for having the Old Country’s exquisitely trained thespians shoulder the burden.]
Against all that, there’s an awful lot that goes right. The film has politics (extremely rare), it has heart (just as rare), it has nerve (even rarer). It doesn’t beat its chest or shirk its basic responsibilities. It handles potentially tricky subjects like King’s infidelity with both finesse and power.
Heck, its even got a good Elvis joke, told at the expense of Selma’s notorious sheriff Jim Clark no less.
So much to the good and credit all around.
But the real force in the movie–what keeps it on track and sears it in the memory even after an inexplicable mistake like playing a piece of bland modern music under the climactic final march (nearly killing the scene itself and effectively obliterating the earlier chills and echoes raised by inspired period picks like Otis Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble” and Duane Eddy’s heavy metal version (from 1965!) of “House of the Rising Sun”)–lies in the faces of the older black American actors: Oprah Winfrey (superb as Annie Lee Cooper); Wendell Pierce, (so right as Hosea Willams I’d pay twice regular if somebody made a movie about that monumental character and had Pierce play him) and, especially, Henry Sanders, pictured at the top of the post.
As Cager Lee–the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young activist who was murdered by law-breaking “law enforcement” during one of Selma’s early protests–Sanders, a seventy-two year old native of Houston (and, therefore, perhaps the only member of the main cast who experienced Jim Crow both first-hand and at length), collapses the distance between himself and the then eighty-two year old Lee so thoroughly that he punches a hole in time.
When he’s on screen, its not history anymore….or a movie anymore.
We’re there. Not inside his skin–considering what such a man is bound to have endured, that would be presuming far too much–but looking at his face in the room.
Looking him in the eyes and knowing he would give up anything–not only his right to vote, but any chance to avenge himself for every wrong that’s ever been done to him–if he could only have his daughter’s boy back.
And knowing all the while–telling us all the while–that the best he can do now is push forward. That the only possible good that can be wrung from this and a million other horrors is the marker of progress the “movement” that his son died for is trying to achieve.
If the Oscars really meant anything, this is the kind of performance (hardly mentioned in any reviews and certainly not “nominated” for anything) they would exist to reward. So I’m not going to get worked up about what all else Selma might have gotten, or even what it might have deserved.
But there are some things….like this (cut in the Stax studio in Memphis, one of the few places in the film’s contemporary South that was actually fully integrated)…
…or this (the purest words of the prophet Curtis Mayfield)….
…that I’ll never hear quite the same way again.