Ryan Van Til | Crown Staff
“Selma” is an effective movie. David Oyelowo gives a pretty good performance as Martin Luther King Jr. If you’re into social justice, interested in American history, or love the Civil Rights movement, I highly recommend the movie. You’re almost guaranteed to like it.
What kind of review is that, you ask? Well, “Selma” isn’t the great movie that critics are claiming – in fact, it’s pretty bad.
But if it’s bad, what did “Selma” do effectively? It did a good job of telling the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery; it did a good job at emphasizing just how important it was to the Civil Rights movement. MLKJ’s speeches are pretty inspiring and the movie focused on them really well, even ending on one — though the speeches are rewritten due to copyright issues and might be distracting if you know them. There’s also a rap song during the credits, which is really good. The marketing team released a great poster for the movie. And that’s it.
Its effectiveness was reminiscent of the movie “Precious”, which was also a poorly made movie but had one great performance and a powerful final scene. “Selma” has the same three glaring problems as “Precious.” The script is unfocussed, the directing is unprofessional and the leading performance is vastly overrated.
“Selma” felt like two scripts mashed together — like the producers weren’t sure if they wanted to do a historical re-enactment or a biopic. This lack of focus was most apparent when the movie pasted text on the screen, written from the FBI to the president. At first it seemed as though it was some sort of attempt to make this relevant to the NSA today, but the text just recounted exactly what had happened or what was about to happen. The movie also jarringly cuts between scenes of characters organizing the march and MLKJ’s home life without any attempt to connect anything or establish tone or pacing.
It turns out that the script was originally about the Selma march from then President Johnson’s perspective – how he balanced his moral convictions while trying to get Southern officials to support his “Great Society” project. The movie was meant to be a historical retelling. But when director Ava DuVernay got the script she rewrote it to make it more of a biopic about King. The re-write is painfully obvious.
In case you think this is nitpicking, a script that people claimed was snubbed for an Oscar nom shouldn’t confuse people who know what makes a good script.
Did you see the movie “The Butler”? It had a predictable colour scheme of gold and burgundy for good character scenes and bleak colours for bad character scenes. Selma is the exact same. And no effort was made to do anything clever with these predictably coloured locations; people just sit and talk or stand and talk – usually in someone’s living room.
(In case you don’t know what I mean, there’s a scene in this year’s “Gone Girl” where the main character and his lawyer are prepping to do a talk show. They’re lounging in the studio’s lounge. The lawyer is trying to get his client to act naturally and throws food from the buffet table at him when he tenses up. It’s a little detail, but it’s fun to watch a mundane location add a dynamic to the scene that makes it fresh and interesting. Good directing makes otherwise boring scenes engaging; sometimes it can be so subtle you don’t even notice it. It means the director thought about the scene more than not at all.)
Selma also boasts some of the worst extras I’ve ever seen in a movie; everyone looks so serious that it’s like someone told them they were part of a movie. Background characters always have a stern, pensive face. The (mis)use of slow-motion is both baffling and distracting. And almost every shot of this cheese is a flat angle at eye level.
While some might consider this nitpicking, directing that people thought was snubbed for an Oscar nom shouldn’t punish the viewer for knowing about good directing.
Finally, there’s the main performance. The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd put it perfectly, saying “Oyelowo can’t match the oratorical fervor of the famous leader he’s playing . . . he fares better when illuminating the less public side of King.” Oyeloyo is great in the quiet scenes and has a face built for conveying emotions. But on the podium he misses the almost musical pitch to King’s voice, he misses the exaggerated hand gestures and, most importantly, he misses the passion in the delivery. Can a performance really be called good if the actor misses the most iconic and defining features of his character?
A historical performance that people thought was snubbed for an Oscar nom shouldn’t punish the viewer who knows how a historical figure spoke.
So can a historical movie be good if it fails at being historical and a movie? As I write, “Selma” has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, so apparently this review is wrong. But perhaps the London Evening Standard’s David Sexton has it right when he says Selma is “difficult to review as a film. In some ways it’s beyond criticism as the first-ever major movie about [Dr. King].”
Sexton is certainly right when he says the over-moralizing of the movie “doesn’t make for great cinema.”
“Selma” didn’t connect with me on an emotional level; I assume that its message more than its artistry has resonated with those giving the movie rave reviews. After all, “Precious” also opened to critical acclaim.
But just as Al Gore probably wouldn’t call “Birdemic: Shock and Terror” a good movie because it had an environmental message, everyone draws the line somewhere when calling a movie bad – despite “agreeing” with it. The “line” of this review is just a bit further out than most. Do I like MLKJ’s teachings and movement? Absolutely. Would that stop me from calling a movie about him terrible? No way.
So, in light of that I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of the review: if you like history or social justice, see this movie. But if you want to see the movie people claimed “Selma” was. If you want to see a movie that is among the best examples of the year’s films, if you want to see something fresh, bold and artistic, something challenging emotionally and intellectually (y’know, the type of movie the Oscars are supposed to honour), then skip “Selma” — see “Birdman” instead.