This is a film which has many things going for it, and one of those is a heck of an opening. The film takes it’s title from an iconic 1965 civil rights march and we can infer from the subject matter alone that we are in store for some emotionally charged scenes. Yet, even so, the impact of an early tragic scene is undeniable and director Ava Duvernay deserves serious kudos for how she chooses to incorporate it. Her’s is a film that starts with a punch in the gut and, if possible, ends with an even larger one.
From a technical standpoint, the entire movie is a thing of beauty. The picture is under saturated, giving it a washed out look that imitates the appearance of films from the 1960’s and music does a nice job of balancing period tunes with a blues-infused score. However, while it looks and sounds pretty throughout, it is narratively uneven. One of the basic rules of good story telling is to “show” not “tell.” This is also sometimes described as “scene” versus “summary.” Essentially, you want to engage your audience in the moment, rather than simply giving them the Readers’ Digest version of events. Selma’s opening might be stellar, and the rest of it’s first half is well-made, but it’s most summary. I’ll even grant that it’s pretty adept summary, but it’s summary nonetheless. We get snapshots of events that introduce us to a sea of characters and helps set the political stage for the action to come. Our glimpses of the various individuals are so brief, and the accounts of their circumstances so truncated that, even though we can tell that they’re good people facing immense challenges, we simply don’t have the emotional stake in them that we should.
However, this all turns around near the half-way mark when a peaceful protest meets with brutal resistance. The ensuing scene were Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of his associates visit the grandfather of a slain young man is truly moving. A few scenes later, the protesters embark on the first iteration of their march and from that point on the film keeps you in an emotional vice-grip right up until the end.
If the second half of the film does have a discernible fault, it’s that it continues to spread its characters too thin. There are so many individuals at play that many, perhaps even the majority of them, are not well-drawn. It’s a difficult balance to strike in a film like this, where there are so many key players who deserve their due. Yet, with few exceptions, the actors do a commendable job of doing getting the most out of their mileage.
I do feel compelled to offer a brief note on the film’s historical accuracy. DuVernay took special care to stick as closely to the facts in every aspect of the story except for one: King’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson. While, this might seem like a minor detail, his portrayal seems like a bit of a cheap shot at a man who was, by most accounts, one of King’s staunchest political allies. The film might not be a documentary, but the reality is that most viewers will come away believing that this is how the events actually occurred. With that in mind, it surely makes those who have a vested interest in the subject matter grateful that the film sticks as close to the facts as it does, for that is certainly more than can be said for certain other Best Picture contenders.