Monday, January 19, 2015

Selma: History Left on the Page

David Oyelowo (centre) as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma

The director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, moves the historical figures around like action figures set against the famous landscape of Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights to African Americans. I can’t remember the last time a historical drama presented such potent narrative material so ineptly. As a filmmaker DuVernay lacks every important skill: she has no idea how to choose the most effective or interesting camera angle, no editing rhythm, no notion of how to shape a sequence, and neither she nor the screenwriter, Paul Webb, has a clue how to dramatize a scene. The actors stand or sit around and make speeches; even in the private interactions of King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) – the one where she visits him in a Selma jail cell after Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) has come to see her with an offer of assistance and King refuses to consider it, or the one where she confronts him in their home about his infidelities – they seem to be presenting position papers, with careful deliberation and pauses you could drive a train through to underscore their points. We might as well be watching the story unfold in a pastiche made for the History Channel – though I doubt you could find anything as dull as Selma on the History Channel. And in the set piece sequences built around the march, like the protesters’ several efforts to make it across Pettus Bridge while the armored cops under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) stand with truncheons on the other side, the somber music enshrining the historical significance of what we’re seeing has to do the filmmakers’ work for them.

There’s no doubt that these scenes, and a few others – notably the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four little girls (two of whom we see walking down the stairs moments before the explosion) – are powerful. You can’t watch Clark’s cops beating black citizens in the streets and then chasing one family into a diner and mowing down its youngest member (Jimmy Lee Jackson, played by Keith Stanfield), or the clubbing and tear-gassing of the protesters when they first attempt to stage the march, without feeling horror and anguish. But those emotions derive naturally from the events, not from the way the filmmakers have put them on the screen.

Oyelowo has mastered King’s vocal patterns and he looks the part, but his performance is too studied; it doesn’t come to life until the final moments, when his oratory inspires his followers outside the Capitol in Montgomery. Oyelowo is an extremely intelligent actor but he doesn’t have the charisma to carry off Martin Luther King; Wendell Pierce, who plays King’s associate in the Southern Baptist Leadership Conference, Reverend Hosea Williams, is a far more robust presence, and when they’re on screen together he’s the one who commands the camera. Pierce isn’t the right physical type to play Martin; still, I kept wishing he – or at least someone with his larger-than-life qualities – had landed the role. Though the story she wants to relate is about the way outsize personalities ignited with the spark of moral conviction directed the path of history, DuVernay seems to understand very little about the power of personality, or indeed about creating characters. She seems to think that if she throws a group of black activists whose names are celebrated in the annals of the civil rights struggle into a series of strategy meetings and then shows them in close-up being pummeled by cops, their virtue and suffering will etch them on our consciousness. It works with Pierce; it works with Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper in an early scene where she’s turned away at the polls because she can’t name all sixty-seven county judges in Alabama, but that’s because Winfrey has an amazing instinct for physicalizing a character instantly. You expect it to work with Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton, but Toussaint’s ace as an actor is the expressiveness of her vocal instrument, and she’s been given very few lines. The beautiful young actress Tessa Thompson, who was a regular in the second season of Veronica Mars, plays Diane Nash, but she has even less dialogue than Toussaint; effectively she’s barely more than an extra whose face keeps showing up in the group scenes. On the other hand Stephan James (as John Lewis), Colman Domingo (as Ralph Abernathy) and Common (as James Bevel) have major supporting roles but no characters to go with them. And DuVernay blows a wonderful opportunity in a scene where King rouses Mahalia Jackson out of bed early in the morning to sing him a hymn over the phone: the jazz and R&B singer Ledisi Young doesn’t begin to suggest the tidal-wave power of Jackson’s gospel singing.

Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

The cast also includes Giovanni Ribisi as LBJ’s adviser Lee White, Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson (who overrides Governor Wallace’s order forbidding the march), Alessandro Nivola as John Doar, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and Cuba Gooding as civil rights lawyer Fred Gray. Except for Johnson, the movie doesn’t bother to identify any of them. (To put it mildly, Webb and DuVernay aren’t storytellers; if you get distracted for a minute, you miss Malcolm X’s assassination entirely.) Dylan Baker makes something amusing out of J. Edgar Hoover’s mixture of malevolence and fastidiousness, and Tim Roth uses his actor’s wiles and his considerable wit on the role of George Wallace. Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon Johnson, whom the movie depicts mostly as an obstacle in Martin’s path because of his own political priorities – the War on Poverty over the enforcement of voting rights for southern blacks. Throughout Wilkinson’s scenes the audience is cued to jeer at him – as, for example, after Jimmy Lee Jackson’s murder, in an especially heated telephone exchange he accuses Martin of planning to provoke a tragedy in Selma to milk national sympathy for his cause. Actually the film’s treatment of him goes over the edge into the outrageous. Earlier in the narrative, Hoover lectures him on King’s degeneracy and proposes to cripple him by destroying his marriage; after LBJ gets off the phone with King, we hear him yell, “Send for Hoover!” So when someone plays a tape on the phone to Coretta King that’s supposed to be of her husband getting it off with another woman (in a wry moment, Ejogo’s Coretta observes that she recognizes that the tape’s a fake because she knows what he sounds like in the throes of sexual passion), the filmmakers clearly want us to assume that Hoover arranged for the tape and Johnson colluded with him.

Of course, they have to navigate the film to the Voting Rights Act, so they provide a scene in which, after Judge Johnson’s ruling, Johnson calls the intractable Wallace to the White House and tells him that he’s not going to let history relegate him to the same category as the likes of Wallace. LBJ makes the right decision at long last, and the audience has another straw figure to boo. I’m not much of a Wilkinson fan except when he gets to play comedy, but it’s hard to imagine what any actor could do with a part as rigged as this one. In a few minutes of screen time, Liev Schreiber in The Butler manages to hint at more of LBJ’s complexity than Wilkinson can in the second largest role in Selma. But then Lee Daniels, who made The Butler, is an authentic moviemaker. Imagine what he might have done with the story of a pair of towering figures, one black and one white, whose locking of horns was a crucial step on the way to the greatest forward movement in black history after Lincoln.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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