Full disclosure: I am fascinated by director Ava Duvernay. I love what she's done with AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), promoting and developing films that almost exclusively feature talent of color, and helping to organize a global conversation about how we can better support films with diverse casts. For that, she is a somewhat of a superhero to me. But here's the thing: I don't love her films. I feel varying levels of appreciation for them, but nothing has really grabbed me. Yet.
And I've really spent the last few years trying to understand why because I have such respect for her. Then it finally came to me: In Duvernay's quest to create stories in which characters of color can be seen as humans and not merely symbols or, worse, stereotypes, her characters still come across peripherally. When she writes and directs her films (as in the case of both her debut, I Will Follow, and her sophomore effort, Middle of Nowhere), Duvernay often struggles to illuminate a good premise with strong writing that resonates. Further, she often relies more heavily on what she wants the film to represent as a general contribution to cinema (that, yes, black stories matter), and less on character development and what the particular story means to her--which would not only help her define herself as a filmmaker but draw a connection between herself and the audience. That said, her stories are often too distant to love.
In some ways, Duvernay's newest effort, SELMA, struggles with the same thing. But since the film features characters and a story we are already familiar with, there is an established commitment to the film even before having seen it, which takes the pressure off Duvernay to try to bring us into a story we're not yet attached to. What is perhaps most interesting about this story is how relevant it is in today's political and racial climate. So the question moves away from the inevitable Why make a film about Dr. Martin Luther King, again? to We need to remind folks that MLK's vision remains unrealized today. But does that make the film timely or timeless and something we can connect to for years to come? I'd say that it is reliant on the former, and is too undefined to be the latter.
Going into this film I was intrigued by the fact that Duvernay said she was most interested in presenting the stories of "the people on the ground in Selma." Boom, because I am far more intrigued to learn more about the underrepresented people within King's camp, than a reiteration of his diligent struggle to provide equal voting rights for black people and his significant civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. Give me more about notable activists Diane Nash and Reverend Hosea Williams, and I'll be glued to my seat.
But we don't really get a closer perspective on either of these two figures. Rather, Duvernay and screenwriter Paul Webb provide a panoramic view of MLK's (David Oyelowo) story during these tumultuous weeks leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Which is unfortunate because there is opportunity to illuminate the voices of these more seldom discussed people of the era, and give the film a more intimate, human connection. But while we are left with a somewhat familiar story of MLK, SELMA does manage to offer a glimpse of the man behind the legend. Who was MLK when he wasn't the icon, when he was behind closed doors with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), and when he was faced with the daunting challenge of living up to all he represented for so many different people (and sometimes failing)? The film unfortunately glazes over these questions just when it presents them to you without honing in on any distinct point, but Oyelowo's marvelous interpretation of the character is enough to almost make up for that. Almost.
As a whole, when SELMA is good, it's great. A few things about it deserve to be pointed out: 1) the way it was shot. Cinematographer Bradford Young continues to be magnificent and has a keen eye for putting a signature touch on each project of which he's a part. 2) the acting. Again, Oyelowo, an actor who's delivered solid performances for the last couple of years and has consistently flown under the radar, is spectacular here. From capturing the emotional impact of MLK's mission (and its effect on his family) to his arresting interpretation of King's sermons, Oyelowo isn't just acting, he's embodying King. 3) Ruth E. Carter's fabulous costume design that wonderfully recreates the era, and 4) The riveting soundtrack, featuring John Legend and Common's contribution, "Glory."
And while the other actors in the film -- an embarrassment of riches, really, with the likes of Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Tom Wilkinson, Lorraine Toussaint and Colman Domingo -- don't get as much of a chance to stand out as Oyelowo, some of them have a few memorable scenes that are so compelling that even Oyelowo fades into the background. Specifically, Keith Stansfield as slain protester Jimmie Lee Jackson is very effective in the role, as is Henry G. Sanders, whose heartbreaking performance as his grieving grandfather is absolute standout. Maybe because I'm less familiar with these two characters, but I found them both to be far more interesting to watch than Ejogo, who is generally excellent but far too wilted here for me.
But I'm still left with the same question I had going into this film: What does Duvernay want us to take away from SELMA? What is her point of view as a filmmaker? As Duvernay continues to grow as a director, I hope that she takes on more projects like this that challenge her, and continue to shape her voice as a filmmaker. So, is SELMA the film I wanted? No. Is is a good film? Yes, but it's not great.
Rating: B (*** out of *****)
SELMA hits select theaters December 25, and opens in wide release on January 9.