Selma Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype

I usually don’t like biopics, but I saw Selma this weekend because it’s getting rave reviews and because I like to see all the Oscar-buzz movies this time of year. Biopics often play fast and loose with history, and they fail to streamline real events in a way that makes for a compelling movie plot. Selma, unfortunately, has not escaped from these flaws. It’s still a good movie, I enjoyed seeing it, and I recommend it to others. However, it’s not one of the year’s best. As usual, expect spoilers ahoy going forward!

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Let me start by giving credit where credit is due. David Oyelowo is really good as MLK, despite my problems with how he’s portrayed. He captures the cadence of King’s speech perfectly and really looks the part. The scene where he comforts the old man over the death of his grandson at the hands of a white police officer was very touching, and gives a glimpse into the emotional resonance the director Ava DuVernay was hoping to achieve. MLK’s big speech moments are as impressive as they ought to be, and doubly so given that DuVernay couldn’t get the rights to King’s actual speeches and had to rewrite them herself. I’m impressed.

I also have to mention Oprah’s cameo: she only has one real scene, but it’s fantastic. She gets a longer time to shine than most minor characters, and her struggle to register to vote does an excellent job driving home the reality of how unjust things were pre-Voting Rights Act.

My first problem is that they didn’t go all the way with LBJ. Lyndon Baines Johnson is simultaneously the best and worst president we’ve ever had. On one hand he was a colorful, savvy political horse-trader who passed landmark legislation like the Civil Rights act and the Voting Rights Act. On the other hand he was an election-rigging bastard who got us into Vietnam and inspired Frank Underwood on House of Cards. He’s a really interesting historical character and one of my favorite presidents, but Selma totally botches his character.

For one thing, Tom Wilkinson was grossly miscast. He’s British, and Brits doing Southern accents doesn’t generally work out well (although Tim Roth is actually very good as George Wallace). But Wilkinson can’t do the accent, and he doesn’t manage to capture the charm and humor of LBJ at all. I don’t know why the filmmakers didn’t find someone less famous (and with lower salary demands) who could actually do a convincing LBJ impersonation. I mean, did anyone go see this movie because of Tom Wilkinson? I sort of doubt it.

The biggest problem isn’t the miscasting, but the mischaracterization of LBJ’s role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The movie portrays Johnson as an impediment for King to overcome, but the real life dynamic between the two men was much more complex and interesting. And he definitely never ordered J. Edgar Hoover to break up King’s marriage.

The movie also suffers the common biopic problem of too many characters, too little time. Biopics try to cover so much history in two hours that a lot of minor characters never have time to be fleshed out. The movie wants us to care about a huge cast of minor characters, but none of them feel like complete people since they only have a few lines of dialogue each. This movie has a lot of recognizable names in small parts, like Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, and Stephen Root. But unfortunately, none of their characters are very interesting and none of them are fleshed out at all. It just seems like pointlessly cramming famous people into an Oscar season movie.

Those are just peripheral roles, though. The real problem is that characters important to the plot are also given a short shrift. King’s associates in the SCLC and SNCC are critical to his operation, but we don’t ever get a sense of who they are or what motivates them individually. Malcolm X shows up to give a speech critical of King’s pacifist approach, but we never hear the speech and we’re later told that Malcolm died off screen with nary a tear shed. Why have Malcolm X at all if he’s going to be ignored? To someone not familiar with Malcolm X, his single scene would make no sense at all. It’s like the movie relies on us already knowing the history and using our knowledge to fill in all the gaps, but at the same time wants us to ignore inaccuracies.

Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, is probably the most tragic victim of the unfocused script. She has Skyler White Syndrome: she’s only there to be an antagonist for her husband. Her biggest scene is one where she confronts MLK for his infidelities, but it goes on a bit too long and is then promptly forgotten for the rest of the film. King’s marriage and infidelities could have been an interesting subplot, but it’s so at the periphery of the film that Coretta Scott King is barely there. Coretta Scott King is obviously a really important historical figure who was a pillar of strength for her husband, and Carmen Ejogo is certainly a fine actress. My gripe is that the character wasn’t used to her fullest potential in the movie.

It bothers me that the last march is a montage. The whole movie is building up to the successful march on Montgomery. It took several days, sometimes through pouring rain with the marchers camping in the mud beside the highway at night. Federal troops escorted the march, sent there by LBJ to ensure the safety of the marchers. On one night there was a huge concert where the likes of Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett performed on a makeshift stage. When they finally arrived in Montgomery, they delivered a petition to the State Capitol Building. Unfortunately, the movie shows us almost none of this. The whole final march is a montage, and we see none of the exertion of a nearly 60-mile march and destroying the impact of such a dedicated protest. I would have loved to see King consulting his advisers as they struggled through the rain and mud, or to see the protesters celebrating at the thrown-together concert, but instead it’s an all too quick “and that was that” ending.

Ultimately, I think Selma is worth a watch. Even though I spent this whole post nitpicking the things I didn’t like, it’s an enjoyable movie with glimpses of good performances all throughout. David Oyelowo is the only one who gets built up into a real human character, but his portrayal was fantastic. I don’t think the movie got snubbed at the Oscars, exactly; I just feel there were better movies this year.

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