Back in 2012, one of the films on my "to watch" list at the end of the year was Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere," a domestic drama starring Sharon Lawrence and David Oyelowo that had gotten a good amount of critical acclaim. I waited for it to appear on DVD the following year. And waited. And waited. And I'd probably still be waiting if DuVernay and Oyelowo's follow-up project wasn't the excellent historical drama, "Selma," chronicling the actions of American Civil Rights campaigners in 1964. The film is currently attracting controversy, but I'm worried that its well-deserved status as an awards contender is going to keep people from seeing it.
And boy, do I hope that people see this one. I understand why some audiences are approaching with caution. It's got all the earmarks of the kind of unbearably self-serious, one-note historical prestige pic that's been far too prevalent this season. Oprah Winfrey, who has been associated with some of the more misguided entries into this genre (see Lee Daniels' recent work), is prominent as one of film's producers and has a small supporting role. But those who would write off "Selma" sight unseen are going to miss one of the best films about the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ever made. Heck, they're going to miss one of the best films of 2014 period.
There are many similarities between "Selma" and Steven Spielberg's recent "Lincoln." It takes the approach of dramatizing one important chapter in its subject's life, in this case the protests that took place in Selma, Alabama for voting rights. Dr. King, played by Oyelowo, is brought down to earth, portrayed as a man with great flaws and great doubts who has to balance multiple competing interests. The script is very literate and avoids hand-holding, assuming viewers are already broadly familiar with major players like Dr. King and Governor Wallace and events like the bombing of the16th Street Baptist Church that brought the movement to Selma. Oyelowo's performance is tremendous, easily anchoring the whole project, and backed up by a great ensemble led by Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace.
However, "Selma" is fundamentally different from "Lincoln" in that it's concerned primarily with the movement rather than an individual. Though it uses him as a focal point, the film resists the urge to become a biopic of Dr. King, instead taking pains to shine the spotlight on smaller figures involved in the campaign, including white supporters. "Selma" explores Dr. King's role as a strategist and negotiator, careful to treat him as a man rather than an icon, and it extends this attitude to the rest of the major players as well. President Johnson is portrayed as a sympathetic ally, but one who has to be prodded into action - a portrayal which has made some of his supporters uncomfortable. Then there are the other participants in the Civil Rights Movement, representing multiple factions and ideologies and interests. There are far too many to identify and do justice to all of them - many important figures who show up onscreen aren't even named - but as they plan and debate and coordinate, we get a glimpse of how the movement operated day to day, on the ground, in the thick of it.
Dr. King is absent for many of the important events in "Selma," so our attention shifts to Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) or Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) or others. Eventually our investment is with the Civil Rights movement, as it should be, rather than any particular individual. At one point near the end of the film, we suddenly get a scene with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen playing an attorney and a judge. Neither of their characters are identified, but it quickly becomes apparent that Gooding's character is handling a legal challenge to allow the march from Selma to Montgomery. The narrative is so clear, and the momentum of the unfolding events so strong, that little cutaways and digressions like this are possible, and the director takes full advantage.
And speaking of the director, I'm glad to report that "Middle of Nowhere" was finally released on DVD and all the usual streaming platforms last week. I doubt that it'll match up to "Selma," which is as impressive a historical film as I've ever seen, but it's nice to finally have access to the work of a black female director who has certainly proven worth paying more attention to.