Selma feels like it has garnered more attention for omissions of recognition than its actual content, such that the big the Oscar conversation was how it got Best Picture nominated (and original Song, which it won) but no attention elsewhere, in particular for director Ava DuVernay. As these things go, it’s fairly easy to understand why, as for the most part Selma is sturdy but unexceptional biopic fare. Less so in the context of a ceremony that makes a habit of awarding average or inferior biographical pictures as some kind of badge of pride (see fellow nominees The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything).
Part of Selma’s problem is in the nature of the biopic; the necessary adherence to a linear agenda and a dogmatic respectfulness to persons and period. Even limiting itself to such a specific timeframe as herein (the 1965 voting-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery) cannot loosen the trappings of worthiness that prevent it from becoming its own thing; it usually takes distance, invention, or a lateral approach to make such films soar (Amadeus, for example).
Selma is constricted on a number of levels, most particularly budgetary, some of which it makes virtues. DuVernay’s direction is subdued and unremarkable for the most part, until it becomes necessary to shock the picture into confrontation; the enactments of scenes of state troopers attacking the marchers, or the shocking opening with the Klan bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church, are vital and galvanising.
Elsewhere, the writing shows flair through having to make not-Martin Luther King Jr’s words sound like MLK’s words (his estate wasn’t even contacted due to the rights minefield that would need to be navigated), although this is equally down to David Oyelowo’s superb performance (less showy than, but equally deserving of recognition as, Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking). Also well-sustained is the device whereby the events surrounding Selma are verified by FBI surveillance reports, emphasising the complicity in undermining (or removing from the scene entirely) any players who dare to threaten the status quo. And in terms of due balance, the thorny issue of MLK’s extra-marital affairs and their impact on his presence at the march, and his choices in respect of the same, are tackled head-on, rather than painting him as a saint.
But the nuts and bolts of the telling aren’t fresh, they’re very familiar, and it leads the picture generally into that arena of being damned with faint praise. It’s so laudable, even Martin Sheen, acting patron saint of worthy causes, shows up for a scene (and Oprah too, don’t forget Oprah). The soundtrack also drips with rousing and emotive gospel, the least original choice. Familiar faces in supporting roles, doing their part to get behind the message (also including Tim Roth to Cuba Gooding, Jr) are less noteworthy than those grasping a small character and making it resonate (Wendell Pierce and Stephen Root). The tactic of populating a movie with name actors can be a godsend to a dense script or one difficult to market, but here it feels less urgent and more distracting.
An average of two-to-three Best Picture nominations each year are biographical to some degree, a reflection of how quick the Academy is to reward easy emotional uplift and social or political awareness regardless of merit. This is a ceremony eager to garland something as crudely fashioned as A Beautiful Mind with the top award. Since the beginning of this century the only picture to really make something distinct of the biopic is the combination of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin on The Social Network (at a pinch I might include The Wolf of Wall Street, but much of that comes from the subject matter rather than the screenplay). Selma is a well-made picture that essays a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement with economy and occasional power, but it’s no unfairly ignored masterpiece.