I thought today might be the day to take a look at some of the critical reaction so far to Ava DuVernay‘s Selma. As Brittney Cooper writes in Salon, “since revolutionary politics always ask us to see the world anew, filmic representation matters greatly…. The way Selma narrates black leadership as an ever-present ‘translocal’ negotiation between national leaders and local ones mirrors back to us the tensions that the young, but maturing movers in Ferguson are currently working out.” Selma sees a limited release on Christmas Day before expanding on January 9. But it premiered at AFI Fest and there’ve been scattered preview screenings ever since. The sample of reviews is still small, but let’s have a look.
“A half-century on from Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery, director Ava DuVernay revisits those events with startling immediacy, dramatic force and filmmaking verve,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “A far cry from the dutiful biopic or ossified history lesson it could have become in lesser hands (or the campy free-for-all the project’s original director, Lee Daniels, might have made of it), DuVernay’s razor-sharp portrait of the civil rights movement—and Dr. King himself—at a critical crossroads is as politically astute as it is psychologically acute, giving us a human-scale King whose indomitable public face belies currents of weariness and self-doubt. Bolstered by Paul Webb’s literate, well-researched script and David Oyelowo’s graceful, majestic lead performance, DuVernay has made the kind of movie that gives year-end ‘prestige’ pics a good name.”
“How do you do the civil rights movement that hasn’t been done?” asks DuVernay in Rachel Bernstein‘s interview with her for Indiewire. “It’s called ‘Selma.’ It’s not called ‘The King.’ It was really important that we adorned him in the film with this band of brothers and sisters who really made it happen. You can be a leader, but if there’s no one following you, then what are you doing? So, that was the core of what we really tried to attack every day with the images and the narrative. All the acting and the craftsmen and artists rallied around that idea… I wanted to get into the texture of people and deconstruct the statue and the speech and the holiday. That is just not enough. It’s not the full story.”
“DuVernay’s earlier films such as Middle of Nowhere have been intimate dramas,” writes Stephen Farber in the Hollywood Reporter. “So this epic tale with a large cast of characters and violent confrontation scenes represents a departure for the director. Yet the strength of the film is the sense of proportion that DuVernay demonstrates. In a season of so many bloated, overlong films, this two-hour recounting of a few crucial months in 1965 seems just the right length. Intelligently written, vividly shot, tightly edited and sharply acted, the film represents a rare example of craftsmanship working to produce a deeply moving piece of history.”
“Selma is one of the best American films of the year—and indeed perhaps the best—precisely because it does not simply show what Dr. King did for America in his day; it also wonders explicitly what we have left undone for America in ours.” James Rocchi, writing for TheWrap, adds that “Oyelowo’s performance would be impressive enough if it merely recreated the icon we now revere as perfectly as he does through a variety of methods—the cadence of the speeches, the gestures made to the crowd, the political theater of and principled belief in fearlessness and compassion as the only counter to violence and ignorance. But Oyelowo, and Webb’s screenplay, also give us a rich, rewarding portrait of King as a man, one capable of mistakes, self-doubt and hurt. A scene between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) where she not only confronts him about his infidelities but also puts them into aching, ruined context is a masterclass in two-person scenework.”
“Cinematographer Bradford Young, lending his stamp to DuVernay’s previous films as well as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Restless City, lights the film in sun-baked tableaus, evoking Roy DeCarava and Leonard Freed’s photographic work, and shaping light sources around darkness and deep reds that are simply sublime,” writes Charlie Schmidlin at the Playlist, where he also interviews DuVernay and Oyelowo. “Coupled with unconventional additions of their own—a wide-angle lens viewing a crowd, or asymmetrical framing of characters and details—Young and DuVernay elevate one another in nearly every scene.”
“There is no way to watch this film and not think of Ferguson, of Trayvon walking home, of Renisha McBride, of the severity and sudden violence lurking around corners of black life,” writes Nijla Mumin at Shadow and Act. “Rarely has a film been able to merge an epic dramatic event with social critique, and still make make it human. Selma accomplishes this feat. Selma is the human narrative.”
Update, 11/29: For the Huffington Post, Christopher Rosen reports on a recent Q&A with cinematographer Bradford Young: “‘This is all I got,’ Young said when asked by Adepero Oduye, who starred in Pariah (also shot by Young), how he balances anger at a lot of issues happening in this country right now with being a filmmaker and storyteller. ‘This is all I have. As a young black man, and as a black man with a family, this is how I keep myself from going to jail. I’m not going to let them undermine this…. They can make me wonder in fear the fate and destiny of my son, who is a 15-month-old black boy and it’s real for my wife and I. That’s something we talk about everyday. They can come in my house in many different ways. They can come in my space in different ways, but I refuse to let them come into this space.”
That’s via Mike Ryan at ScreenCrush, who wrote on the day after the Ferguson verdict, “I hope we see a lot of Bradford Young and the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, over the next few months and, well, for many months and years after that. They can both be very important figures as we try to figure all of this out. But in making a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., they made a movie about today. Literally today. This day.”
Updates, 12/9: Manohla Dargis has a terrific profile of DuVernay in the New York Times which also highlights the steep, steep uphill battle women directors face in this industry.
DuVernay “makes a thrilling surge into the front ranks of American filmmakers here,” argues the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. And “David Oyelowo has never given a better performance. He seems to penetrate into King’s soul and camps out there for two hours.”
“Unimpeachably important, ambitious in its scope and handsomely presented, [Selma] has all the hallmarks of a trophy winner, for better and worse,” writes the Guardian‘s Steve Rose.
“I walked out of my Selma screening and into a night of demonstrations about the Eric Garner grand jury decision, protests that filled the streets of New York and cities across the country,” writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. “Garner and Mike Brown are only the most recent and high-profile cases of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers who were then cleared of any wrongdoing, and they’re indicative of a deeply disturbing trend finally generating broader outrage…. Selma is a vivid reminder of how much our national narrative about race differs from the actual experience of being a black American, then and now, and how endemic racism and prejudice will be left as is, unless they’re exposed and brought to wider attention—attention that must be battled for and fought to achieve.”
“Genuinely heartfelt, sleek but hardly simple, there’s not one minute of disengagement in a film that towers powerfully over any other American film offering this year,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
Updates, 12/25: DuVernay “writes history with passionate clarity and blazing conviction,” argues A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “Even if you think you know what’s coming, Selma hums with suspense and surprise. Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling.” DuVernay, “working from a screenplay credited to Paul Webb, has stripped away layers of fond memory and retroactively imposed harmony to touch the raw, volatile political reality of the mid-1960s—the courage and the cravenness, the idealism and the calculation, the visible and invisible divisions and rivalries.”
“[W]hat does a Martin Luther King, Jr. film need to be about, and what should it make us think and feel?” asks Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot. “And alongside these concerns, what does it mean to viewers today to see a living, breathing, thinking, moving image of King up there on the screen? DuVernay so smartly and successfully answers all of these questions with Selma that one feels an almost constant sense of relieved exhilaration while watching it. It’s a cathartic film, for all the right reasons.”
“DuVernay’s film lays bare not only the public and private struggles of a great leader,” writes Melissa Anderson for Artforum, “but also the machinations of state-sanctioned hate—a legacy that this country seems doomed never to escape.”
“Unlike most political films, Selma does not celebrate the change-makers at the top of the political ladder,” writes Noah Gittell for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Instead, it is an example of how an oppressed minority, through organization, solidarity, and sacrifice, forced the white man’s hand.”
“DuVernay’s scenes of street atrocities achieve a dogged power,” grants Michael Sragow, writing for Film Comment, “but her rendering of King’s character fails to provide a counter-weight to all the carnage. With police batons thudding against flesh and bone, and almost surreal images like a mounted posse-man in a cowboy hat lashing men and women of all ages, the movie captures horrific challenges to civil disobedience. But it doesn’t clarify King’s own complicated responses to events.”
“Selma isn’t the story of a man but of a movement, and of a very specific turning point within that movement,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens. And “by focusing on the power of cannily staged collective action to turn the tide of public opinion, Selma achieves a contemporary relevance that few historical dramas can—especially those built around real-life figures as encrusted in layers of hagiography as MLK.”
“Much like Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, the brilliance of Ava DuVernay’s Selma lies in how it makes a man out of a historical icon without diminishing his greatness in the slightest,” adds Scott Tobias at the Dissolve. “And just as the Lincoln in the earlier film engaged in horse-trading and power politics to get the 13th Amendment passed, the King of Selma is revealed as a tactician as much as an idealist, someone who understood how best to use activism to turn the legislative screws. His words inspired millions, but that was only half the job.”
“Selma shows the evolution of change while beaming a spotlight on the stunted growth of that which has not changed,” writes Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “Its timeliness is a spine-chilling reminder that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Its story provides a blueprint not only of the past, but of the way forward.”
Update, 12/27: Sergio Mims talks with DuVernay and Oyelowo for RogerEbert.com.
Updates, 12/30: “No less than an inside-Hollywood drama or a backstage musical, Selma tears away the curtain on the making of images—indeed, some of the most important images in American history,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “The movie tells the story of how these images were made, and shows the colossal sacrifices endured in the effort to make them. It’s a movie about history and the creation of history—and, in the process, it takes its own place in history.”
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Joseph A. Califano Jr., Lyndon Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, has argued that DuVernay gets the relationship between LBJ and MLK all wrong, that “Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted—and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.” As Emily Yahr reports in the same paper, “LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove wrote a piece for Politico outlining the same arguments.”
DuVernay has responded via Twitter: “Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) December 28, 2014
Updates, 1/4: “I cried while watching Selma, right around the time Keith Stanfield’s Jimmy Lee Johnson is murdered by a police officer while trying to defend his helpless father following a march the cops willfully and brutally ambushed.” Brandon Harris for the L: “Despite such an emotional reaction to the craftsmanship behind stalwart cinematographer Bradford Young’s crystalline images of life in the dying American apartheid, and that fixed deadness in Stanfield’s eyes, I’m still not sure if the movie played me. Hardened moviegoer that I am, I’m naturally suspicious of historical narratives that claim satisfying emotional truth from the messy ambiguities of the public record. But I’m willing to give Selma the benefit of many doubts.”
“The truth of the matter is the strategy that was employed so brilliantly in Selma wouldn’t work today,” David Oyelowo tells the Chicago Tribune‘s Mark Caro, “because what Dr. King advocated, what they came to as a notion, was that we are going to go into a town, we are going to make the racists act out on camera in front of the press, and that’s going to be enough to shame the nation into doing something about this. With Eric Garner, you have shocking footage—shocking, indisputable footage—you have a policeman breaking the rules of what you are allowed to do to someone, and yet you do not indict them. So I don’t even know what he would do with that.”
Time‘s Richard Corliss: “A Texas Democrat who knew his party could lose the South for decades if he championed equal rights for blacks, Johnson nonetheless boldly declared, ‘There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.’ … A movie like Selma should be a relic in a time capsule from 1965, a clue to how well we heeded King’s words and how far we have advanced. Instead it is a reminder that the ‘American problem’ has yet to be solved.”
For Newcity‘s Ray Pride, Selma is “a galvanic artistic response to the indignities of today, where one major political party works to choke voting rights of citizens, and the other allows them to with little public opposition.”
Philippa Hawker talks with Oyelowo for the Sydney Morning Herald: “One of his favorite scenes in the film involves King and his wife, Coretta (played by English actor Carmen Ejogo), and it’s written in a way that shows us, subtly and unmistakably, the painful realities of their relationship. ‘We’ve seen him in the corridors of power, we see the strategist, the political mind, the courage, the voice for the voiceless, and suddenly we’re in a scene where he’s in his own home, and he has no strategy, he has no words, he’s bereft.'”
“Gary May has published an essay on the Daily Beast that details what he feels are numerous historical inaccuracies in the film.” Ryan Gajewski in the Hollywood Reporter: “May, author of the 2013 book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, writes in his essay that director Ava DuVernay’s ‘greatest failure’ is ‘not fulfilling her stated purpose of highlighting Selma’s civil rights movement. Except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma’s citizens displayed.'”
Updates, 1/11: Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir notes that the controversy surrounding Selma’s depiction of the relationship between MLK and LBJ, “which began as an academic dispute and has now blown up into a full-fledged talk-TV and social-media event, has more to do with the cultural and racial conflicts of our own time than with the apparently straightforward question of ‘what really happened’ back then…. Given Hollywood’s record of pandering and distortion when it comes to the civil-rights movement, the manner in which DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have approached this material is (mostly) defensible. But the historical nitpickers have raised valid points,” which he then looks into.
“You know it’s Oscar season when the historical-accuracy hit squads show up,” writes Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri, who leans toward cutting DuVernay and Webb some slack. “If Selma downplays or subverts LBJ’s efforts, that might be because its focus is elsewhere. And it not only shows Johnson struggling to find and assume his place in history, it also shows King struggling to do the same; that’s called good storytelling. Plus, the last thing we need is yet another White Savior movie about race: As Henry Louis Gates said yesterday, ‘any attempt to make this about the Great White Father is misdirected.'”
Writing for the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew leans the other way. She accuses DuVernay and Webb of taking “prohibitive liberties with the truth” and “deliberately misleading the public… A film critic for The Washington Post argued that we should simply get used to the idea that films pretending to represent history are going to contain falsities—and that we can then discuss why the director made these choices. But how are we to know? Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it?”
“Formally, the film accomplishes something remarkable within the biopic genre,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. in the San Diego CityBeat. “It respects moviegoers enough to drop them right into the action of a historical event unfolding without context.”
Grantland‘s Wesley Morris begins his review with an intense description of that showdown on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “The reason you notice these accumulated details is that Ava DuVernay, the director of this tense showdown, has orchestrated it with the meticulousness Wes Anderson applies to his storybook dioramas and Paul Greengrass does to international frenzy. Her touch feels personal, not so much because DuVernay is a black American woman making what is already the most widely seen, intensely discussed of her three films, but because she has an artistic stake in the clarity of the conflict.”
More from Megan Burbank (Stranger), Ellen Sebastian Chang, Sunhui Chang and Connie Field (Eat Drink Films), Owen Gleiberman (BBC), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly) and Kelly Vance (East Bay Express).
Kerensa Cadenas has a good long talk with DuVernay at the Hairpin. Daniel D’Addario and Diane Tsai talk with DuVernay and Oyelowo for Time, where photographer James Nachtwey shows us his shots taken on the set. And Mike Snydel talks with Bradford Young for the Dissolve.
Updates, 1/13: Peniel E. Joseph, Professor of History at Tufts University and the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, for NPR: “White supporters and fellow travelers of the movement have had the license to dramatize both historical events (Mississippi Burning, which inaccurately cast the FBI as the heroes of Freedom Summer) and fictional accounts (The Help) of the era. But DuVernay’s film—alongside Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X–is one of the few black-directed efforts to ever grace the big screen…. Selma is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led by black women and men.”
Mychal Denzel Smith talks with DuVernay for the Nation.
Update, 1/18: Danny Miller talks with DuVernay and Oyelowo for Cinephiled.
Updates, 2/23: “Selma styles itself as a pertinent reminder of the US’s racist past, carrying valuable lessons for its present and future,” writes Morgan Quaintance for frieze. “However the message of conformity and conservatism that it conveys is at odds with the contemporary US’s disorienting and irrational world of metropolitan racism—including integration