Directed by Ava DuVernay
Fifty years have passed since the events depicted in “Selma” and it’s both inspiring and disappointing to watch the film in a time when some of the same struggle continues.
Despite the passage of 1964’s Civil Rights Act and a general agreement that the Constitution guaranteed all Americans the right to vote, black citizens in the South were routinely denied the opportunity to register to vote. As is made clear in “Selma,” this didn’t just block their ability to participate directly in the democratic process, but also blocked them from other civic roles, such as serving on juries – thus causing juries to remain overwhelmingly (and often exclusively) white.
Now, five decades later, we seem to be nosing our way back down a similar rabbit hole. The tactics may have changed, from such blatant beatings and killings, to assorted attempts at voter ID laws that target minorities and the poor, as well as tactics such as restricted polling opportunities – but the goals of voter suppression are depressingly similar. After all, if you can’t convince somebody to vote for you, the next most effective thing is to stop them from voting altogether. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The film itself is extremely well made, capturing the period in early 1965 when Dr. King joined the struggle in Selma, Alabama, where longstanding attempts to register local black voters had consistently failed due to overt racism at the county courthouse and in county law enforcement. In doing so, the film isn’t a single-minded tribute to King – he’s depicted as a troubled and often uncertain man who faced disagreements among those close to him, and with other organizations who had the same goals in mind. However, we clearly see the necessary courage of those who took on these causes in full knowledge of the associated risks and their own mortality.
When the film is directly focused on events in Selma, it’s strong and profound, telling a timeless story of non-violent civil disobedience as an agent of change. Unfortunately, however, “Selma” also delves into the relationship between King and President Johnson in a manner that makes Johnson seem like more of an adversary than, perhaps, he might have been. The film could quite easily leave the impression that it wasn’t until after the last of the attempted Selma-Montgomery marches that Johnson reluctantly decided to champion what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even without extensive research, it seems that Johnson was more pro-active than depicted and one would have to believe that a very complex piece of legislation was written in an extremely short period of time for the film’s exact sequence of events to hold up.
It feels, in viewing, as though there might have been a desire to depict King’s struggle as being blocked on all sides, as though to magnify the extent of his accomplishments. But his accomplishments don’t need such magnification – even if he had more support than depicted here, they were still extraordinary and nation-changing.
Oddly, both King and Johnson are played strongly by English actors – King by David Oyelowo and Johnson by veteran actor Tom Wilkinson. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace is played by Tim Roth, another English actor. In general, the acting and production standards are excellent and the direction by Ava DuVernay is similarly strong, with some composition choices that could generate a photography exhibit as successfully as they drive the film.
“Selma” is a strong film that deserves to be garnering attention during the now underway awards season. But it’s also attempting to carve out a hallowed niche for itself as a sound depiction of historic events and while it does that relatively well for events in Selma, it may not be quite as accurate at the macro contextual level in the scenes with Johnson. Ultimately, that’s for the historians to decide and most audiences will still be moved by what they see, whether perfectly accurate or not – and the underlying message remains: Change isn’t easy, change isn’t cheap, and doing the right thing requires courageous people to, perhaps literally, stick their necks out. Fifty years later, that’s too easily forgotten as most of us (myself included) protest via status updates and tweets, rather than by risking livelihoods and lives, traveling and fighting for a cause.
Also opening this week, “Taken 3” brings back Liam Neeson as a man with a certain set of skills. Unfortunately, however, where “Taken” and Taken 2” were refreshingly light and fun films in which Neeson’s Bryan Mills finds himself having to recover family members from assorted European locations, “Taken 3” changes both the subject matter and the venue, neither for the better. What we get this time starts out somewhat like “The Fugitive” with Mills accused of murdering his ex-wife and ends a little like a toned-down version of Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces.” But the fundamental problem is that while we can relatively easily accept an ex government operative moving through Europe, leaving a trail of carnage and then exiting the continent without facing the consequences, it makes little sense for the same thing to occur in Los Angeles with Mills’ identity being known, with endless mayhem and assaults occurring, and with no penalties being incurred. As an audience, we’re willing to suspend our collective disbelief if at least something makes sense, and here it really doesn’t. And Forest Whitaker is too good to repeatedly play frustrated cops and agents. I enjoyed the first two “Taken” films but this one doesn’t belong in the set.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is a hard film to describe and a somewhat hard film to recommend as it’s such a stylistic exercise that it’s likely to either connect or fail to connect, depending on one’s personal taste and aesthetic. Set in 1970’s Los Angeles, it tells the meandering story of a pot-smoking private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) who gets dragged into a complicated case when his ex-girlfriend shows up unexpectedly. It’s a wonder he can keep any of the details straight, given a pot habit that borders on the scale of a forest fire, and at times it would be easy to believe that certain mind altering substances were being pumped into the theater. It’s a pretty crazy trip that feels, I would imagine, a little like watching a marathon of “The Rockford Files” while on the drug of your choosing – individual scenes range from odd, to funny, to hilarious and eventually you don’t really care that much about the story any more, although it plugs away in the background as a necessary delivery mechanism for the relentlessly crazy scenes playing in the foreground. And those scenes are filled with Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, and Eric Roberts being memorably and intentionally over the top. I enjoyed watching “Inherent Vice” although I cared less and less about anything that happened as it all seemed progressively less and less important.