Jesus Christ! You can’t even walk down the street this winter without tripping over an Oscar-baitey biopic with every alternate step. I mean, honestly—have you noticed that four of the eight best picture nods this year are biopics? Not that anyone gives a shit about the Oscars, obviously, but the point I’m laboriously trying to drive home is that I think we could all do with a bit of escapism that isn’t mired in a bloody-minded scramble for awards. But whatever. Selma, then.
Ava DuVernay, responsible for a few critical darlings including the Ebert-praised 2011 drama I Will Follow, directs the project. Generally speaking, there’s not too much to find fault with as far as technical execution is concerned, and the few yet surprisingly engaging action sequences are well presented and appropriately weighty. I was a bit suspect of the mixing of real-life documentary black-and-white style footage and the slick 2014 present-day footage; the intention was obviously to add to the immersion and remind the audience that Selma was based on real-life events, but in reality I found the juxtaposition quite jarring.
Written by mysterious entity calling himself Paul Webb and incorporating some contributions from DuVernay herself (for which she is not credited) Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s attempts to secure the voting rights for the black population of Selma, Alabama circa 1965. The film is Webb’s only screenwriting credit, and the Internet remains reluctant to divulge much of his biographical information. Be that as it may, the film is functional if unchallenging, and serves more to document the facts of the Selma campaign rather than to tell an enduring story. When you get right down to it, what we’ve got here is basically a run of the mill “good vs. evil” story with a slight change of outfit. What is the message that we’re supposed to take away from this, exactly? That racism is bad? Thanks, Selma, but at this point that’s kind of up there with “the Nazis were dicks.”
I’m kind of getting down on a mostly decent film, and I think it’s because I disapprove of the intention behind it. The posters for Selma, instead of boldly proclaiming the film’s title, might as well read “OSCAR BAIT: HANDLE WITH CARE.” It’s pandering, mostly, and for that I find myself ill disposed towards it. It’s an open palm, groping blindly for a hint of gold come February. The cynic in me is fully expecting Selma to win best picture, but the truth is that essentially anything else deserves to win more. The film is so safe and committee-designed and virtually incapable of offending or challenging anyone that I can hardly say that it adds to the culture of cinema in any way aside from the mostly serviceable technical execution.
For what it’s worth, David Oyelowo is a fine actor, and plays Dr. King with admirable aplomb, though generally his role is restricted to making sweeping speeches and proselytizing—all tailor-made for maximum poignancy, naturally.
The bottom line is that Selma is just okay. That might sound like an inelegant summation coming from a guy who just spent five paragraphs shouting into a void, but all in all it’s an exceedingly safe movie that just happened to hit the theaters in a year so rife with sociopolitical tension. It’s watchable, to be sure, but fundamentally insubstantial, and I resent it for it’s award-hungry intentions.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5