Selma and American Sniping

The matinée of Selma at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Martin Luther King Day yesterday was sold out, but a friend had gone early and saved a seat for me. It’s the best movie about an American political organizer we’ll probably see in a long time, and a gripping story unto itself.

I have a special place in my heart for complex, tragic figures in general, and President LBJ in particular, so I hesitated to see Selma till the controversy about the director and cast getting snubbed by the Academy Awards got the best of me. The indignant posturing on Twitter and Facebook made me wonder, just how good could it be? Answer: Damn good. It’s refreshing to see King as a leader who frustrates his supporters, second-guesses himself, and makes mistakes, but also as a complicated, sometimes difficult person, the first to start stuffing his face when the bacon’s on the table.

Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL.

Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL.

What I didn’t appreciate about Selma was the thematic clumsiness. For all its unnecessary thoroughness in covering tactical disagreements, its thematic through-line is still too elusive: Aside from his skill and his beyond-his-years wisdom, King was the one who brought…what, exactly? “Cool” is the best answer I can come up with. Compared to Lincoln, in which the progress of the plot can be counted in “Yes” votes for the amendment – we’ve got 12, now we’ve got 15, etc. – progress in Selma can only be counted in how close LBJ comes to supporting the Voting Rights Act. Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb have been called out for this historical inaccuracy, which does matter, but I find it especially disappointing since the intention of the leadership gets telegraphed so sharply. If they’re going to take such license, couldn’t they come up with a better mechanism to measure their progress than just LBJ personally relenting. So cool he out-foxed LBJ? How about, managed to get LBJ’s attention for a full day, or managed to overrule a cabinet member who thought something else was more urgent than voting rights?

With hundreds of extras in the marching scenes, the Whitehouse feels cheap! You get one shot of LBJ surrounded by staff, then the rest of his scenes feel like they were shot over a weekend. I know the consensus is that everything Tom Wilkinson touches turns to gold, but I didn’t feel his LBJ was nearly formidable enough. He’s the mighty and powerful Oz. Let’s see some smoke and mirrors.

But that’s talking about the film that could have been. The film they made brought me to tears. And I especially liked how deftly it ended. Spielberg blew the ending of Lincoln. DuVernay nailed it in Selma. Judging by both a survey of the other MLK projects in development and the apparent difficulty of King’s heirs, this is the best film we’re going to see about MLK, and it gets him right.

I try to stay numb to the Academy Awards. It’s not a national film institute with a public mandate, it’s a professional association that parcels out its brand bit by bit. It’s old, white and male, yes, and risk-averse and prone to shooting itself in the foot. But we also have to remember that Selma grossed $11 Million this weekend, while American Sniper did over $100 Million. The world looks very different to semi-retired producers in Beverly Hills.

Selma did get a Best Picture award nomination. Did DuVernay deserve a nomination too? And David Oyelowo for playing King? Both probably yes. I was personally more  appalled – I suppose on behalf of louche, over-educated caucasians everywhere – that Ralph Fiennes didn’t get one for Grand Budapest Hotel. The film got nine nominations, but would have been a mess without his brilliantly three-dimensional performance, comic but with lovely, touching moments.

What do you think?

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