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Monday, December 29, 2014

GeekRex Quick Take: Selma

The Buzz: Ever since it premiered at the AFI Fest to a standing ovation, Ava DuVernay's Selma has been seen as the film that could topple Boyhood's chances at a Best Picture Oscar. Taking a "slice of life" approach, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb (though the director significantly re-wrote the script) focus in on the plight of racial oppression that occurred in Selma, Alabama in the 1960's; specifically the suppression of black voting rights by county registrars, State Police, and even Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). In response, Martin Luther King (David Oyelewo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference plead with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass national voting rights legislation. Facing little support from the Oval Office, King and his fellow civil rights activists begin preparations for a march from Selma to Montgomery, all the way to the Alabama's Capitol steps in protest. A protest that carries the potential for horrifying consequences for those risking their lives in the name of their constitutional rights, including personal ones for King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

What's Great About the Movie: David Oyelowo, ladies and gentlemen! The British-born actor, probably only known to most American viewers as a guy that popped up in Interstellar for five minutes, inhabits Martin Luther King Jr. in a way that can only be described as Daniel Day-Lewis like. Oyelowo literally inhabits the man in the same way that the Day-Lewis channeled Abraham Lincoln and the results are revelatory. The mannerisms, the voice, the commanding yet soothing presence of the man are all on the display. Of all the performances by a lead actor that will be nominated for an Oscar, this is the one that deserves the big prize (and will likely be denied it, sadly). While there's much to praise here overall beyond that fantastically gripping lead, the film's other major MVP is DuVernay herself, who approaches this material unflinchingly. There's no grand Spielberg-like mythologizing here. Instead, everyone's flaws are on display, including King's himself. DuVernay's touch is immersive, yet simple, and the reality of its messaging resonates to this very day. This is the closest I've ever felt to sensing that a documentary was unfolding in front of me in real life, but thanks to DuVernay's gorgeous compositions, from King in a dark jail cell to protesters arm and arm in the middle of the rural Alabama countryside, the sense of "being there" is impossible to shake. It's one of the most impressive directorial feats I've seen this year, particularly in a genre that has far too many pratfalls that are easy to trip up on (see: The Theory of Everything). That final scene will sit with me for some time, I can't remember if I've ever felt that way about a docu-drama. 

What's Not-So-Great About the Movie: There are tiny qualms I could pick, the very short detours into King's home-life felt a bit like brake-pumping here and there, and I could have used just a little more expressed nuance into the words that Tom Wilkinson had to work with as President Johnson, but these criticisms are minor and overshadowed by the immense strength of this tour-de-force.

Final Verdict: There isn't really much I can say beyond what every other critic has already contributed, so I'll just close with: Selma is easily one of the best and most vital films of 2014. Putting aside its obvious relevance to today's headlines, it's the kind of effort that I wish/hope would become a blueprint for filmmakers seeking to bring real events to the big screen. Much like Steve McQueen's masterful 12 Years A Slave, the craft here is undeniable. Make it real, make it hurt, make us want to stand up and shout. Selma does all of those things. Go see it.

Selma is available in select theaters across the nation.

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