16 January 2015

Movie Review:  Selma

Ecclesiastes tells us that "for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (3:1, NRSV).   Ava DuVernay's film Selma is made for this American moment, a strange season of nominal economic recovery and 'winding down' of wars, when much public discussion is occurring over persistent racial inequities, but nobody wants to admit culpability for treading their little cogs in the grand machine that perpetuates them.

David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King is a fully human theologian and self-questioning activist.  We see about a year of his life unfold and are left to fill in his youthful past as well as his predetermined future with our own knowledge -- a wisely chosen narrative frame.  The only haloed martyrs in this film are the girls whose church was blown up by white supremacists, and even they seem pretty ordinary.

The questions of legacy and agency are the main drivers of this movie.  Who is to blame (is God to blame?) for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, asks a wrenching passage in the midsection of the film.  The sudden extinction of this young Army man's life stirred questions in me about the point of similar extinctions in the ongoing non-war US occupation of Afghanistan.  Is George Wallace a depraved political mastermind or a fourth-rate song and dance man who happened to be born at the right time to head the forces of "segregation now and forever"?  The movie doesn't decide for us.  The portraits of Confederate generals and slave-owning presidents that loom over many of the quieter scenes remind us that white supremacy has been cooking for a long time - and that yes, some of those white Freedom Riders probably underestimated how hot the oven was.

The inclusion of Bayard Rustin and Andrew Young as strong, although minor, characters, is certainly matter for praise.

5 out of 5 stars.




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