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April 15, 2024

Selma: Movie Review

By Bernie Pilarski

So, let's set the stage here. I am by almost any standard an old man. Employers look the other way, insurance companies sigh and only see me as a liability, and the only branch of science that has any interest in me is paleontology. I think that I could still be relevant to the world around me, although I will unapologetically admit that there are fewer and fewer venues in which I care to make the effort. I'll be dead one day, and all the knowledge and experience that might make me relevant will be lost. I guess that's the hole in the middle of the Circle of Life. Yes, there is an endless cycle in which birth and death seem to inalterably flow into one another linking past, present, and future, but so much of what is learned in that process seems to calve off the circle and disappear into the depths of the hole.

It's not like there are no attempts to preserve what we've learned along the way. Religion and art are huge warehouses of stored information about what we've learned and observed over the years. Anamnesis is the term used for the act of mining the information that has fallen into the hole in the Circle of Life. Anamnesis is not simply a passive memory but is the process of entering into the events of the past, bringing them forward and making them relevant in the present. As a country, we remember the events of 9/11, and if we enter into that memory, the pain of that time can seem real again. In so doing, we once again understand why we must be ever vigilant, why the inconvenience of metal detectors and baggage searches are necessary. We engage in anamnesis in gentler manner when, as we set out on a journey, a loved one tells us "remember that I love you." They are asking us to hold onto to something very dear, so that no matter how far or how long we travel, at any given moment we can know love is not a distant memory, not that we were loved, but at that very moment we are loved.

In the same sense, Selma, one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture, is an experience of anamnesis. It is the retelling of the events surrounding the campaign to secure voting rights for Blacks in 1965. As it inevitably must be, it is also the story of Dr. Martin Luther King's actions during this time. When efforts to secure access to voter registration stalled, local organizers asked for help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its charismatic leader Dr. King. By 1965, King was an internationally known figure. He had traveled millions of miles, given thousands of speeches, including the famous "I Had a Dream" speech. He had been named Time Magazine's Man of the Year, and he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also tired. His marriage was strained. Sitting in a Selma jail, King wonders aloud if what he is doing can even make a difference.

The story of Selma would be an easy story to distort. It could focus on the violence and hatred that was perpetrated on the protestors and lose sight of the power of King's principled non-violent approach. It could just as easily have mythologized the people and events, spun a tale more of knights slaying dragons than of ordinary people doing ordinary things with extraordinary courage. Selma is a balanced, well told tale that manages to allow the drama of the events to speak for themselves, allowing the viewer to feel as though they have experienced what it was like to have been there.

Selma's director Ava DuVernay is relatively new to directing ranks. Her two previous feature films had budgets of $50K and $200, a far cry from the $20 million for Selma, although in this day and age, $20 million is not that much. Like a similarly budgeted The King's Speech, the 2011 Best Picture Oscar winner, Selma proves that it doesn't take monster budgets to make excellent movies. There was a look and a feel to this movie that felt very right. The pace of the action, the framing and lighting of the shots evoked an intimacy made it easy to imagine what it might have been like to have been there. The restraint and subtleness of the dialogue and of the acting lent a palpable air of fear and resolve that allowed for an understanding of the heroism, not just of Dr. King, but of the nameless people in the back of the line, ordinary people who faced almost certain injury and even death to do what they knew to the right thing. Dr. King's speeches in this movie are all the more remarkable because the original speeches could not be used -- they are copyrighted material and couldn't be licensed for this project. DuVernay had to rewrite the speeches so that they sounded like King's, but did not violate copyright laws. She did a fabulous job.

The cast was brilliant, each evoking the essence of the character without it seeming to be an impersonation. I do not know if David Oyelowo's performance warrants a Best Actor Oscar; I am very, very surprised that it did not warrant at least a nomination. Mister Oyelowo can take some (very) small consolation in the fact that the Oscar people who picked nominees this year seemed to miss the mark in a number of areas.

Selma is a very good story. It is a story you want your kids and your grand-kids to know. This story helps you understand why there is a national holiday for Dr. King. And if that alone were not reason to go see this movie, this movie also happens to be a very good movie, an excellent example of why motion pictures are such an incredible and influential art form.

Take the opportunity to go see this film if you can.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-01-26
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