Friday, December 26, 2014
Airless, flat and squirmy, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is the epitome of what I call the “broccoli movie”: you’re supposed to see it because it’s good for you.
Well, to quote George H.W. Bush, “I do not like broccoli…I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.” In the same vein, dear reader, you needn’t see “Selma” to satisfy your black duty or assuage your white guilt.
As Dr. King, David Oyelowo gives a creditable performance, but it’s more an impersonation than a penetrating examination. There’s nothing here as messy or full of life as his fussy backwater journalist in “The Paperboy” or his angrily rebellious, Black Panthers-joining son to Forest Whitaker’s servile “Butler.” “Selma” is virtually straight hagiography, its best scene the only one in which King is allowed to be flawed (i.e., human), a softly spoken but pivotal late-night conversation with his wife (Carmen Ejogo). Coretta asks him not whether there have been others but whether he has loved any of them. DuVernay builds the tension just so as Martin contemplates what he is confessing as well as denying when he finally says, “No.”
The rest of the film eschews opportunities for moral or strategic complexity in favor of a more blandly palatable black-and-white approach. LBJ (the always reliable Tom Wilkinson) tells King, “You have one issue. I have a hundred and one.” Well, what are they? He adverts primarily to the war on poverty, but we don’t get a rich historical sense of the political calculus in play. George Wallace (Tim Roth), the Democrat governor of Alabama who ultimately “sold his soul to the devil on race” (Emory professor Dan Carter), is drawn as a pure caricature here; one idiot in my audience felt the need publicly to prove her progressivism by hissing when he appeared onscreen. A more nuanced depiction might help younger audiences understand how such obvious wrongs were allowed to take place under color of law. DuVernay includes several figures who worked with King to plan and carry out the marches at Selma, but none is even partly developed as an actual human being, and a potentially interesting internecine turf war between King’s SCLC and John Lewis’ SNCC comes off as a pouty personality conflict.
“Selma” would make a perfect double feature with Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Both feature Oscar-bait lead performances and sacrifice subtlety and insight for a less challenging, more saintly take on their subjects. And both gave me ants in my pants; I couldn’t wait for the school bell to ring.