Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ralph Abernathy, Tim Roth, Cameron Ejogo
Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Material including Violence, a Suggestive Moment, and Brief Strong Language
Has it really taken until 2015 that we have seen a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Yes, it is, in fact. Strange, isn't it, since biopics are all the rage these days in Hollywood (they're the only Oscar-bait movies not based on books), and we've seen everyone from an Olympic athlete turned prisoner of war (Louis Zamperini in "Unbroken") to Bob Kearns, the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper ("Flash of Genius"). Surely Hollywood would race to bring Dr. King to the screen as fast as possible, seeing as he's a known name and has a great life story? Apparently not. What's worse is that the film isn't very good.
"Selma" does not strive to provide a comprehensive look at King's entire life. In one of her few correct creative decisions, director Ava DuVernay realizes that such a thing would be next to impossible given the time constraints (unless you're Spike Lee, who had no problem making a 3.5 hour long biopic of Malcom X...not that I had any complaints about that). Like the overrated "Lincoln" 2 years ago, "Selma" uses a single event, in this case the march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, to explore what happened and (to a lesser extent), the man at the center of it all.
The film received some controversy in regards to President Lyndon B. Johnson's involvement with the march. In the film, he's against it, but only because it interferes with his political agenda (both he and King want blacks to be treated fairly, but he wants King to put the march on hold). In reality, he was a staunch supporter of civil rights and supported the march. I have no problem with biopics fudging the truth or even completely making it up as long as it suits the film's plot. Narrative films are not documentaries, and should not be treated as such. As they say, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," The problem is, "Selma" isn't a good story. or at least not the way it's told here.
By doing this, it takes away the antagonist of the story, who is always necessary. Some movies do okay without a clear-cut bad guy, but they need to have strong storylines and character development. Neither of those are in evidence here. There's no counterpoint to King, which leaves somewhat of a lack in conflict (DuVernay doesn't shy away from the violence of the police or the anger of the white townspeople). Tim Roth's George Wallace looks as if he might fill the void early on, but he's only on screen for a few scenes. That's probably for the best, since he's so over-the-top that he becomes cartoonish. I love Roth (both as an actor and as a filmmaker), but he neither looks nor acts like the man he's impersonating. For those of your who don't know what the man looked like, the initial casting choice was Robert De Niro.
In all actuality, this isn't as much of a problem as are the lackluster performances or the self-important tone. David Oyelowo gives a woeful interpretation of Dr. King. Physically, he bears some resemblance, but that's only a small percentage of the battle. In an attempt to make him seem more human, Oyelowo goes for an understated portrayal, i.e. muttering all his lines and speaking slowly. It doesn't work. He's boring. When he speaks publicly, he's fire and brimstone. But what he truly lacks is magnetism. It's impossible to believe that this man changed the course of history for an entire race of people who endured so much hate and suffering. I always enjoy seeing Tom Wilkinson on screen, but he's miscast as Johnson. Wilkinson doesn't embarrass himself, but there is a disconnect that's hard to overcome. No one else is important enough to be memorable, except Oprah Winfrey and Jeremy Strong, both of whom make brief appearances.
When I said "self-important" tone, I don't mean to trivialize the actual march or the circumstances in which they transpired. The story needed to be told (although there are arguably more important and cinematic experiences from Dr. King's life that could have made better movies than this one), but "Selma" is like "Million Dollar Baby" in the sense that it is trying so hard to be a "classic" film that becomes painfully obvious. The sheen of pretension is palpable from frame one, and while some films can get away with that, "Selma" isn't one of them.
Let's hope that the next time MLK Jr. comes onto the big screen (and I guarantee that it won't be the last), it will be better. For now, stick with "Malcolm X."