There’s no reason not to like “Selma,” the Ava DuVernay-helmed drama which chronicles the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1960s led by captivating activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
British actor David Oyelowo makes the most of a poorly outlined script by first time screen-writer Paul Webb, largely succeeding in the attempt to provide a larger picture of King the man while given limited opportunity for character development.
There are better movies yet to be made about King’s life, achievements and character as DuVernay’s third feature film simply scratches the surface of a complex and powerful leader.
“Selma” is the rock dancing along the top of the water of importance, skipping around from beatings in the streets to White House visits, from quiet personal moments to loud public emotions without ever diving into any of them.
Too grand for its own good, the film lacks the depth and gravitas that the first feature centering on King deserves and suffers from the same one-note flatness that befell Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.”
At the outset of the film, DuVernay chooses to counterbalance King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a rural church bombing, a point never revisited again in the film.
Malcolm X, a significant figure within the civil rights movement, is relegated to a single scene, while a measured performance from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is marginalized and largely pushed off to the side.
Supporting performances in “Selma” are a mixed bag from the uneven, haphazard performance from Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson to the completely flat, uninspired Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace.
Among the minor players in the film, Henry G. Sanders’ moving portrayal of a grandfather mourning the death of his grandson provides “Selma” with its most poignant moment, and then is relegated again to the background.
“Selma” is an important film for how it frames today’s fragile racial climate following Ferguson and similar events, but its omission from larger Oscar accolades isn’t a black or white issue, nor is it a political issue. It’s a matter of quality in a given year.
Half of this year’s nominees for Best Picture are biographical films, and several also worthy films in the same genre (“Big Eyes,” “Foxcatcher”) sit idly by on the sidelines.
Racial bias didn’t cause the Academy to overlook DuVernay for a directing nomination, but rather that five directors had more impact on cinema this year. The fact that Clint Eastwood — who made a better film (“American Sniper”) and is universally beloved by the Academy in spite of political differences — didn’t receive a directing nomination should be just as shocking.
The same is true for Oyelowo as King, but the effort doesn’t match up with the likes of Bradley Cooper’s chameleon performance in “American Sniper,” Eddie Redmayne’s physical transformation to play Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” or Benedict Cumberbatch as code breaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.”
What works for the leads in this year’s other top biopics, especially for Cumberbatch, is the depth of character each actor is able to achieve thanks to a quality script and allowances from the director to immerse themselves in the character.
A film like “The Imitation Game,” which sees Cumberbatch shed most of his “Sherlock” persona to portray a complex man helping to save Britain while hiding a dark secret, offers the time for character development.
Viewers are allowed to see how Turing became the man who shortened World War II through mathematics, while also providing audiences with the social context in which Turing, a closeted homosexual, lived in.
Cumberbatch is able to live in the duality of Turing’s character — the public, dry and off-putting persona of Turing the professor as well as the private Turing, struggling with sexuality in an unforgiving world.
The film, respectively directed by Morten Tyldum, captures Turing in a much more complete way than “Selma” does King, and is helped by a strong performances from Keira Knightley as a colleague aiding in secret due to sexism in the workplace.
“The Imitation Game” also does a better job of providing larger context to the film’s stakes than “Selma,” whose scenes of violence feel largely forced outside of the troopers’ attack on the bridge.
“Selma” is a great story told well; “The Imitation Game” is a fine story told greatly.
Both films are among the year’s best and are worth seeing in theaters, though neither rises to the year’s elite category.