by Adam Riske
Selma is undoubtedly the most emotionally affecting movie I saw from 2014. It’s certainly one of the best. If I could do a redux column of my favorite movies of 2014 (which I won’t because “in with the new”), Selma would earn a high place on that list. This movie delivers on its intentions beautifully -- it depicts a historical event in depth and with deep feeling and urgency, while also giving us insight into the people that were its central figures, treating them as human beings and not just names in the annals of history. This movie made my blood boil and my heart ache. I was consistently moved throughout Selma.
Selma is like the movie Lincoln, but with a pulse (sorry Lincoln, I’m not a fan). Both movies deal heavily with the political maneuvering behind affecting policy change in the United States at two very different, but similar, times in history. That is a more accurate portrait of what Selma is trying to accomplish than saying it’s a straight-ahead biopic on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s about a sample size of his life, which acts as a representation of his overall spirit and aim. Shockingly, this is the first-ever theatrically released biopic (if you choose to call it that, as IMBD does) about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Isn’t that sad?
Now I want to talk about the actual filmmaking, since so far I’ve mostly been speaking about its themes. The direction is controlled and passionate, with plenty of vision and authorship. This is definitely a calling card in the young career of its director (who I was only aware of before Selma from her contributions to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself). DuVernay makes some great choices, including not blunting the depiction of the hatred and violence in the era the movie is depicting, as well as bringing authenticity to the production by actually shooting in Selma, Alabama. It lends the movie an atmosphere of sadness and dread that could not be matched if it was shot on a set.
Interstellar, but his depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is on a whole other level. It’s a really powerful performance. He does some great acting just with his eyes in the movie. Notice how heartbroken and angry they appear when he is in the quieter scenes in Selma. It’s like two distinct performances – his inner turmoil that has to be masked by a calmer, more diplomatic exterior. I also liked the choices by DuVernay, Oyelowo and screenwriter Paul Webb to depict Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not only as a superhuman leader of a cause but as a man who needed his comrades to prop him up when he was suffering and in doubt.
I also want to call out the character arc of Jimmie Lee Jackson (a young demonstrator who was murdered by the police) played by Short Term 12’s Keith Stanfield. This whole character arc is heartbreaking and expertly acted. This is the second movie of Stanfield’s where his performance moved me to big, wailing tears. He’s becoming the go-to-actor for delivering massive emotional impact in minimal screen time.
Selma obviously affected me very deeply. That’s the power of movies – they can stir something deep within our souls at times. This movie made me feel sad and ashamed but also admiration for what the brave people behind the Civil Rights movement fought for and achieved. You can call me a bleeding heart for loving it or say that it simply appealed to my white liberal guilt. I don’t care. There are a lot worse things that I can be called or accused of. It moves me because it’s a human story of right and wrong. If you love good movies, go see Selma. It’s an absorbing experience.