Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Selma": Better Than The Academy Gives Credit For

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Picture

Best Original Song - "Glory" by John Legend and Common

Among the deluge of Oscar-baiting biopics this year, Selma is the one I found most intriguing.  This not only serves as Hollywood’s first biographical representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but this film also seemed to serve a purpose beyond the performer-aggrandizing shallowness of most biopics.  David Oyelowo may make a great Dr. King, but this film isn’t made with the sole intention to use his talent to win gold statues.  There is a purpose here, to demonstrate the particular trials and tribulations that occurred during the Selma protests, and to paint an accurate picture of Dr. King as an orchestrator of the progress it spawned.

The film does this by choosing its timeframe very carefully and particularly.  This is not a story of Dr. King’s life, as it picks up after he has achieved fame and only just as he is awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  The story then covers the following three months, focusing on those particular events and Dr. King’s place in them.  This is a very refreshing take on the biographical feature, as we aren’t focused on Dr. King’s entire life, which likely couldn’t be done justice in the time and three-act structure limits of a feature film.  What Selma does best, however, is use the story of the protests to paint Dr. King as more than the peace-loving saint that popular culture has reified him as, and show us the political strategist behind the icon.

David Oyelowo may carry the public gravitas of Dr. King, but he really shines in the moments where King isn’t acting as the great orator, and Dr. King’s deft understanding of media manipulation and public sentiment comes to light.  Behind the Christian minister lay a tactician, who understood that non-violent protest was, more than anything else, a tool to gain media coverage so as to inform the rest of the world of the tragedies happening in Selma.  Oyelowo carries these scenes with a sense of solemn and determined conviction, greatly regretting putting his people in harm’s way but recognizing the greater good that their movement serves.

And though Oyelowo’s performance captures Dr. King’s understated brilliance with award-worthy skill, the real credit for this film’s masterpiece lies with director Ava DuVernay, who orchestrates a large cast of actors into a relatable and watchable fictionalization.  She recognizes that a story about human rights needs to focus on the human elements of the struggle, so not only is Dr. King recognized as vital, but the other grassroots organizers are given just as much credit.  Furthermore, the way she chooses to portray the white politicians of the day is remarkably resonant of certain politicians of modern times, who recognize the inherent injustice of their positions and the turning tide of public opinion, but feel the need to keep up a strong appearance for their constituents.  The clear parallels to modern politics and events is not accidental, and though the events of Ferguson could in no way have been influential in the filmmaking process, DuVernay’s film shows quite clearly how easily such injustices can be perpetrated.

Selma was largely snubbed by the Academy this year, receiving only Best Picture and Best Original Song nominations out of seeming token appreciation rather than actual.  However, in light of the competition, there is no reason why David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay should have been excluded from their respective categories, and that is truly unfortunate, because this truly was one of the best pictures of the year, and one of the few nominees that actually deserves the distinction.

What are your thoughts on the overly white and male representation of the nominees at the Oscars this year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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