Ooof. I confess, I don’t really know how to review this movie. Why does it feel different from any other movie? Because it’s a piece of art? A piece of history? No, it’s because this is a piece of heart, of our collective hearts. This story is an act of remembrance, an act of grace.
Matt, Sean and I attended the screening of this film at Silver City last night and I’ve been sitting with it ever since, wondering how I can add my voice to what’s being said about this movie. This is not just a history lesson. The images of protest, of indignation, of police brutality, of black people being gunned down for no reason, these could just as easily be ripped from today’s headlines as from 50 years ago. That’s the part that will scrape raw at your conscience, as it did mine.
Annie Lee Cooper is an older black woman registering to vote, as is her right as a supposed American citizen living in Selma, Alabama. The registrar is white, and resorts to dirty tricks in order to deny her once again. She leaves, slump-shouldered and dejected. Annie Cooper is played by Oprah Winfrey in the movie. I’m not normally a fan of stunt-casting, but in this case, using America’s sweetheart, a respected, powerful and highly successful personality who is also a black woman, to remind us just how far we’ve come in just 50 years, is pretty much the most perfect casting in the history of the world. Winfrey plays it winningly, with all the dignity the role deserves.
Insert Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo). He and his crew arrive in Selma to unite the people, to stir up activism, to attract the attention of the president (LBJ, played ably by Tom Wilkinson) and force him to do something about this supposed right to vote. Of course the president is reluctant, has his own agenda, and so King and company use their non-violent protest to force action in a genius and tragically necessary way.
The cinematography is a subtle tip of the hat toward realism. The costuming, particularly the suits worn by LBJ (those shoulders!), is pitch-perfect. The casting is strong. On paper it seems a bit weird to employ so much British talent to portray American icons, but it works. Oyelowo does a great job of shouldering the man and the spirit, the hero and the human being, without impersonating him.
It is hard to sit and watch this film. Director Ava DuVernay knows this and even uses it, with a stirring montage of Americans of all kinds watching horrified as the events unfold across their evening news, mirroring our own choking dismay.
DuVernay succeeds in stringing together a lot of different plot points in the course of the Selma events – the internal struggles of the organization, King’s problems at home, his grief and self-doubt, and government apathy or outright hostility on all levels. The film works so brilliantly because, while it stays humble in its scope, it becomes a representation for the movement as a whole, and for all the smaller victories along the way that led to real change. This flexibility in her story-telling is skillful and impressive and I can’t wait to hear her name announced as an Oscar nominee (I won’t even say if), the first black female director ever to make the list.
Please see this movie. I can’t say that enough.