The Man Who Would Be King

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and though he's been dead for decades, the ideals that Dr. King fought and died for have never been more timely. Current events were very much in my mind when I went to see Selma, the 2014 film that documents the marches in Selma, Alabama and the Voting Rights Act that was signed as a direct result. While the movie does serve as a biopic, it doesn't attempt to cover Dr. King's entire life, focusing only on this particular battle. With so many real-world issues swirling around the movie's subjects, it almost needs to be approached in three separate ways.

The first is Selma-as-mirror-to-modern-society. Director Ava DuVernay had no way of knowing that as she made this movie, a dramatic uptick in the deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of white police officers was about to sweep the nation. It's impossible to watch the movie's scenes of Alabama state troopers beating marchers with billy clubs and gunning them down in diners without thinking of what's going on in our streets, adding a layer of poignancy to an already intense story.

The second is Selma-as-magnifying-the-politics-of-filmmaking. The movie has become a vortex of fights and think-pieces. Though it's nominated for Best Picture this year, the movie received no acting or directing nominations. In fact, not a single person of color is represented in any of the twenty acting nominees. It's also taking flack for its portrayal of LBJ, whose supporters complain that the adversarial attitude he displays in the movie is nowhere close to the supportive president they remember.

But the third and most important way to talk about this film is Selma-as-a-movie. Just that. A movie. A piece of art created to tell a story and attract viewers. It's very well-made, opening with the shocking attack on a Birmingham church and Oprah Winfrey in a nicely-understated turn as Annie Lee Cooper, who does her best to jump through a series of ridiculous hoops to register to vote, only to be turned away.

The movie does rely a bit too much on sweeping, grandiose speeches, and I'm not talking about the public speeches Dr. King gave to his supporters. I'm talking about speeches that characters who are standing around give to each other. No matter how important the cause, people sitting down to dinner do not talk to each other like they're performing the second act of Hamlet.

It's when the movie gets into the nuts and bolts of the march planning that it really shines. Just as Lincoln was never better than when it delved into the political maneuvering it took to get the 13th Amendment passed, Selma is at its best when King and his inner circle discuss the best ways of capturing the nation's attention and of prodding a reluctant president into offering his aid. King knew full-well that marching in Alabama was going to invite violence, or even death. Trying to avoid that fate while still pushing for change was a delicate balance to strike, and watching the marchers apply as much intelligence as bravery was riveting.

Other segments of the movies aren't as compelling. King's affairs and the FBI's malicious attempts to discredit him are mentioned, but glossed over. Cuba Gooding, Jr. shows up as a lawyer suing for the marches' right to demonstrate, and proves yet again that he's always the worst actor in the room. These are minor complaints, though. While nobody can argue that Selma is an incredibly important movie, not a lot of people have been talking about if it's a good movie. Luckily, you've got me here to tell you that...yes. Yes, it is.

Selma: B+


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