MOVIE REVIEW: Selma

Selma’s Bloody Sunday took place on my 12th birthday.

selmamovieIt seemed like the obvious thing to do. The Wife and I went to see the movie Selma on the Martin Luther King holiday, which also celebrates Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Arkansas Mississippi, and, notably, Alabama.

While The Wife dropped off the Daughter at the sitter’s, I waited for her, and for the massive crowd to see this film. And there was a stream of people coming in the Spectrum Theatre, to see… American Sniper, which, to be fair, had just opened, while Selma had opened the week before. Still, our theater was about 85% full.

You must understand that I recall these events extremely well. Bloody Sunday took place on my 12th birthday. I remember Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, and others. I surely remember Sheriff Clark. When a guy named James Reeb comes on the screen, I say to myself, “He was a Unitarian minister from Boston.”

So here’s my review: it was great. Director Ava DuVernay was visionary in recreating the feel and look of the period. David Oyelowo didn’t so much look or sound like Martin Luther King Jr., as embodied his essence. The same can be said for Carmen Ejogo as
Coretta Scott King.

But I was having trouble writing this review, not because I didn’t know how I felt about the movie, but rather because I didn’t know what to make of the “controversy” around it. Specifically, it had to do with the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson, played extremely well by Tom Wilkinson. Even before we saw the film, an in-law had mentioned that “Selma, the film, is not exactly true.” After seeing the movie, all I can say is: claptrap.

It’s not that Selma should be impervious to being critiqued. It’s only that the criticism, which the ‘Selma’ director responded to, seems disproportionate to the total picture. Folks who well know the Alan Turing story found The Imitation Game enjoyable, even while recognizing that it’s far different than the actual events. Walt Disney didn’t actually go to London to pursue the “Mary Poppins” author, as it was portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks.

In the case of the film Selma, I believe not everything was factual – the reference to the Birmingham church bombing was in 1963, not as chronologically close to the 1965 Selma story as it might have appeared. But it showed a greater truth about a people being terrorized by racism.

Bill Moyers, who I admire greatly, thought the film was wrong in suggesting that LBJ was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the “sex tape” to Coretta King. I had a chance to talk with a film critic, and we both thought the movie was far more ambiguous than that.

These two articles pretty much reflect my sentiment: It’s Critics of ‘Selma’ Who Are Distorting Civil Rights History and What’s really behind the “Selma” backlash.

I didn’t agree with this section of the article from Slate: “The film’s running time is a swift two hours; I wouldn’t have minded an extra 30 minutes to learn more about the rest of the civil rights pioneers (all real historical figures) who march arm-in-arm on the front lines with King.” The film, as it says at the end, is not a documentary. There are plenty of them already about this era.

This was an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, especially considering the movie doesn’t use the actual words from MLK’s speeches, for copyright reasons.