Opportunities missed in Ava DuVernay’s retelling of “Selma” events

Equality may be the law, it's far from being the rule
David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson and Carmen Ejogo
Directed by Ava DuVernay

The public has been relatively kind to director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” though this recounting of an extraordinary moment in our country’s march toward civil rights is bloated and inaccurate. Which may explain, rather than some anti African-American conspiracy, why it was spurned for the Academy Awards nomination.

Martin Luther King, here played superbly by David Oyelowo, is the closest anyone in contemporary times comes to sainthood. His well-documented shortcomings don’t diminish by an iota his unrelenting demand for racial equality, his magnificent verbal prowess, and his courage. Despite the obvious danger to his strategy, his followers, and his own life, he didn’t falter once on the road taken to a better future for the black minority.

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He didn’t need to have his halo refurbished by this director who has given in to the far-too-common petty principle of communicating vessels. Meaning that MLK being the hero of this particular story, it has to be all about him. Recognizing any help or support he may have gotten elsewhere, particularly from a white man, particularly the President, takes away from the single-hero narrative.

In this retelling, Johnson, a strong supporter of the civil rights and the man who signed it into law despite great opposition, turns out to have been a politician dragged willy-nilly into a struggle he didn’t want.

That is one (extreme) weakness of the film. The other is the reverential, greatest-story-ever-told treatment. It would have taken a more original director than DuVernay to recount the epic march in Selma, Alabama. The charisma of an undaunted MLK, the courage, dignity and remarkable discipline of participants, the worldwide attention, deserved a more daring, less prosaic treatment than this film which, despite a great cast (Tim Roth as Governor Wallace deserves a special mention) and a well-rendered sense of the violence and loaded atmosphere of the time, remains a biopic.

Filmmaker Ava Duvernay

Filmmaker Ava Duvernay

Still, that the film came to be is good. Indeed, that the march from Selma to Montgomery happened, led by a tenacious, resolute MLK, is a miracle in itself and had to be told. It is all the more timely as recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere sadly demonstrate that although thanks to that march and other major milestones in the civil rights movement, equality may now be the law, it is far from the rule.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date: December 25, 2014
Running time: (127 minutes)
Country United States
Budget $20 million