How about those Oscar nominations, eh? There seems to be a whole lot of blandly inspiration “true story” movies this year. Of course, we could hang around counting snubs until, as the kids say, the cows come home, or we could focus on just one, because despite this misleading intro, this article concerns something totally different, as implied by its title. I’m just gonna hop right to it, then.
The Plot: Following his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and his Nobel Peace Prize win, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) directs his attention towards the next big step in the American Civil Rights Movement: securing the right to vote safely. Technically, African Americans possessed that right for years, but most of the South managed to find ways to keep them from the ballot boxes and registration forms. King heads to Selma, Alabama, to organize the townspeople and any other sympathizers in a nonviolent march on Montgomery, the state capital. Of course, things aren’t that easy, and they must face opposition both direct and indirect from Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the FBI.
The Theory of Everything sought to inspire its audiences with a story about a man who achieves greatness in the face of adversity. Its primary tactic involved ending every scene with one character looking directly at the camera and asking, “Isn’t this inspirational?” Rather than offering anything to encourage that feeling naturally, it just tells you to feel a certain way. In case you skipped that review, I didn’t much care for The Theory of Everything. Selma has the same basic premise and objective: man achieves greatness against overwhelming odds, based on a true story. Both men even have unflappable wives to whom they’re unfaithful. Obviously, beyond that, the two films don’t have much in common. One man seeks to explain things through science despite his crippling disease; the other seeks to grant basic human rights to a mass populace despite outright physical violence and institutionalized murder. Who’s to say who achieved more? In light of those differences, I think the comparison justifies itself, as both films have the same basic goal: to inspire audiences through the lens of real human achievement.
I’ll not keep you on the edge of your seat, though. You want to know: is Selma a good movie? Did it succeed where The Theory of Everything and so many other films failed? Yes it is, and yes it did, and here’s how: by being a real movie. The filmmakers didn’t treat Selma like it was somehow better than other stories for being based on actual events, and they didn’t use its obvious political power as a crutch. They just made a movie. Selma is about real people in the way that Boyhood is or Whiplash; not in the way The Theory of Everything is. I watched the Golden Globes last week for some reason. The best part of the night was an interview with David Oyelowo on the red carpet. Someone asked him how he approached the daunting task of portraying the icon of the Civil Rights movement. He said his aim was to depict a man, not a holiday or a speech. Mission accomplished. Eddie Redmayne, by the way, gives an excellent performance in The Theory of Everything as a disease, but not as a human being. Oyelowo delivers a powerful, moving performance as a man who sought to better the lives of others in light of both fierce political opposition and his own personal shortcomings. Ultimately, the message of this movie is not that Martin Luther King Jr. was perfect, and that’s how he triumphed; it’s that he was motivated, so he triumphed, and so anyone can.
That sentiment flows throughout the film, penetrating its various levels organically. Remarkably, Selma is not a heavy-handed movie. It earns every scrap of emotion and sincerity without resorting to cheap gimmicks, moral shaming, or little girls in red coats. This is just a perfect example of an actor engaging deeply with a well-written, well-directed character. Curious, then, that Selma failed to garner nominations in any of those categories. Seriously, this would have been a win-win for the Academy: politically correct and deserving.
Let’s not waste any more time complaining about the Academy Awards, though. That won’t accomplish anything. Fifty-three-year-old writer Paul Webb, whose only film credit is this screenplay, perfectly avoids any of the pitfalls of making a movie about a historical icon. It helps that Selma isn’t a biopic. It has a very focused topic and sticks to it, wasting no time on King’s upbringing or youth, his start in the Civil Rights Movement, or his death. Webb even resists the temptation to include the “I Have a Dream” speech. Basically, the film isn’t about King; it’s about Selma, you know, hence the title. Sort of like how Lincoln wasn’t really about Lincoln, but about a very specific event in history in which he happened to be one of the major characters. If you were wondering why the first major MLK movie was not titled MLK or King, it’s for the same reasons that The Lord of the Rings isn’t called Aragorn.
Selma probably is one of the best films of 2014, so it deserved the Best Picture nomination a lot more than some of its competitors, like, for example, The Theory of Everything. I cannot explain how it got overlooked in practically every other category. In the end, though, the Oscars really don’t matter. They can help or hurt an actor’s career from time to time and they grant bragging rights, but regardless of who wins what at the Academy Awards this year, the people who produced Selma have claim to the best and rarest bragging rights of all: “We made a good movie.”