I feel bad for ‘Selma’. Initially intended for a 2015 release, the post-production was pushed through in a seemingly weak year and the hype machine built this film as the socially important film of the year and immediately the faith the studio had in its Award’s chances started to seep into the prognosticators fingertips and, before it was shown to the world, it became the film to beat. Then it was seen and reviewed and the response to the film was tepid, to say the least. The social relevance was obviously seen and the importance of the message was heard loud and clear and yet, the film itself wasn’t warmly embraced. Then Oscar season heated up and the word ‘racist’ started getting thrown around and the fight for this film became ugly, even though it had no chance to pull a win away from the two clear frontrunners. When the nominations were announced, and ‘Selma’ managed the BP nom and…a Song nomination, the film in a way became a joke. Its BP status was immediately questioned (no writing, directing, acting…not even a costume nod!) due to the fact that it was clear it wasn’t really liked that much. This was a case of ‘we nominated you here because we had to’ and not a case of ‘we think you were one of the best films of last year’ and because of that, ‘Selma’ kind of has this stigma around it.
Like I said, I feel bad for ‘Selma’. I was one of exploited that stigma after the nominations were announced.
I’ve seen the film now (I hadn’t seen it then) and at the end of the day, the fact remains that ‘Selma’ was not one of the best films from 2014.
It’s also not a joke, which is why the whole Oscar BP nom, in a way, hurts this movie. If the film had just been regarded for what it was (or given the extra few months to hone and develop better and then been released, as intended, in 2015), then I think the film itself would have a better reputation. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
But enough about all that, let’s talk about the movie.
‘Selma’ does not tell the life story of Martin Luther King, Jr.; it tells the story of the marches, led by King, in 1965 to fight for equal rights in Alabama. Chronicling just a few months, the focus here is much tighter and direct than one may initially expect, and because of that the story told carries a heavier, more secure weight. Biopics can be tricky when they attempt to cover too much ground, and so while I feel like King’s story deserves a complete film, I understand the decision to keep this story more centrally compact (and Spielberg has exclusive film rights to King’s entire story, I believe).
My issue with ‘Selma’ is this; when the film has its lens off of the actual marches, it lags.
There is such intensity and brutality conveyed in those marches that the rest of the film can’t compete. It feels stuffy and longwinded and laborious, and so it starts to completely lose an audience, only to be shaken at its core by these electrified sequences of violence and injustice. I’m shocked at how monotone so many scenes felt, because the material really could have sustained the intensity or at least the energy if it had been handled better. Instead, everything from the cinematography to the framing to the performances (Ejogo and Wilkinson aside) felt stilted and unmoving. Even Oyelowo, who commanded those monologue moments, gets lost in a sea of ‘mellow’.
But those marching sequences are astonishingly well directed, crafted, framed and edited.
This is a shame to me, because this story is so socially important. I wish that DuVernay had been allowed more time to edit and compose this film, for maybe with that extra time she could have compiled a film that felt for alive, but unfortunately the heartbeat of the film was lost in the finished product. If the media circus had left this film alone, it would have skated through Oscar season without a single nomination and it may have been regarded as a handsomely mounted portrait of an important man, but the unfair criticisms heaped upon a voting body have tainted this film forever.
The biggest shame about all this is that Tom Wilkinson’s scene stealing performance as Lyndon B. Johnson was soured by ridiculous controversy and thus excluded from the Award’s race early on, since his performance is the best in the film and was truly deserving of any Oscar attention it could have received.
|Breathe, Tom...there's always next time.|