No doubt, millions of American moviegoers will be in line this week to buy tickets for the movie-du-jour of gravitas, Selma, and rightfully so as we near Dr. Martin Luther King's 86th birthday (his birthday is Thursday, Jan. 15, but we'll celebrate the national holiday on Monday, Jan. 20). Unfortunately, the film is not a seminal achievement. Make no mistake: I don't wish Selma was a different movie. I wish it was a better one.
First, the good news. Selma is a warm, inviting experience that welcomes its audience to a dignified telling of a part of American history that has been embarrassingly under-told in film. It's reason enough to get excited about this movie. Second, a soundtrack featuring John Legend and Common is Selma's strongest suit. It's a guaranteed Academy Award winner and when a global audience sees a live performance of "Glory" on February's Oscar broadcast, the song and soundtrack will likely race to the top of the charts. Third, the ensemble cast of Selma is fine—with one major exception. The strongest performance comes from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. She's surrounded by superb work from Nigel Thatch (as Malcolm X), Stephen James (as John Lewis), Dylan Baker (as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover), Tim Roth (as Alabama Gov. George Wallace) and Tom Wilkinson (as President Lyndon B. Johnson).
Unfortunately, the weakest link is British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. King. Oyelowo has a striking physical resemblance to King, his oval-shaped face and split-pea eyes are hauntingly similar to those of the civil rights leader. And while Oyelowo has mastered an ideal vocal inflection from America's Deep South, his cadences in King's most famous oratories are all wrong. His vocal pitch is too high and comes from his head instead of his diaphragm. Most glaringly, Oyelowo comes nowhere near King's vocal melody: King could roll through a single word with multiple registers. Oyelowo's performance is good and a few moments approach greatness, but his delivery of King's sermons—the tent poles of Selma—is inferior. It's a Herculean task, but other actors have achieved this lofty goal (Paul Winfield, Courtney B. Vance) and when the biggest egg in your basket is cracked, it's too much to ignore.
Also, Selma is rated PG-13. In too many instances, the film's depiction of violence is framed (and sometimes silhouetted) and doesn't adequately portray the brutality of the times. Too many people were clubbed, whipped and crippled in 1965, and when African Americans weren't being beaten or attacked by dogs in Alabama, they were shot. Yet, there is little blood in Selma. There are multiple scenes of confrontation but director Ava Duvernay (This Is the Life, Middle of Nowhere) chose to soften the blows, and in one sequence where a lead character in the movie is gunned down in an Alabama cafe, the audience doesn't even see any blood. I'm certain a big part of this tamed-down editing came at the behest of producers, including Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey, who wished to attract a broader audience, but too many chapters of American history are R-rated. Any parent or teacher who doesn't think a high-school or middle-school student, fully engaged in studying the human experience, isn't capable of seeing a consequential and violent film such as Schindler's List or 12 Years a Slave isn't paying attention.
Speaking of Ms. Winfrey... she's wonderful (hey, she's Oprah). But why must she continue to put herself at the forefront of the films she funds? Like she did in Beloved and the Women of Brewster Place, Winfrey gave herself a plum role in Selma as sufferer-in-chief. Rumor has it she'll appear in next year's untitled Richard Pryor biopic, which she is producing, as Pryor's grandmother. Winfrey isn't a bad actress, but her presence inspires too many whispers during a film. "Isn't that Oprah?" was a common comment uttered during two screenings of Selma I attended.
Then there's the LBJ controversy. By now, you may have read that Selma's Johnson (Wilkinson) is painted as a scheming U.S. president who authorizes FBI Director Hoover to pull some dirty tricks in order to foil King's plans, and who repeatedly fights against a voting rights bill in lieu of other legislative priorities. However, documented history tells us otherwise, and therein lies Selma's biggest historical fumble.
King's oratory, his genius for finding a perfect time and place for action, the violent push-back from our nation's deep-rooted bigotry and an Exodus-like march from Selma to Montgomery is the foundation for what is an amazing story that only a feature-length film could capture. Unfortunately, this wasn't it.