Saturday, January 10, 2015

Selma (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Ava DuVernay's "Selma" has a catchy current trailer. We have Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) intoning "What happens when a man stands up and says enough is enough?" combined with a rap beat. This  question and its rhythmic cadence has been in my head for weeks.

Now the time has come and not a moment too soon. Mr. Oyelowo gives a near transformative performance as the legendary Dr. King, and his incarnation is all the more tactile and sensory because it is delivered without bombast, dramatic ostentation or luxury.

Further, it is a credit to director DuVernay that she dispenses with any preamble or exhibition. Rather we are propelled, or more to the point, thrust into the action, that is the execrable event of the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in Alabama in 1963. This one singular scene is shocking, percussive and heart wrenching, detailing the horror as four black girls disappear under a field of rubble.

We often see Dr. King under a silent strain, alone with his notebook.

He knows what he has to do.

In short, impressionistic vignettes, King tries to enlist the help of President Johnson ( Tom Wilkinson) to give black people the right to vote. Johnson is standoffish and full of platitudes. At least in this film, LBJ could care less about voting rights. To this administration, the cause ala mode is poverty.

His yearnings fall on deaf ears.

King is left worried and pensive. The fog of fear and a deep claustrophobia, an iris of grey cement, is visible in his eye.

For several nights, the Nobel Laureate gets death threats while his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) suspects him of adultery.

During a courthouse voters rights sit-in, the angry cat-eye glasses of suburban wives narrow and sliver in hate.

As the coils of tension almost metastasize with the President (who is privately shown as prejudiced and pandering, if not an unabashed racist) Coretta visits with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) who says he is through with militancy. As Malcolm X once belittled Dr. King as an Uncle Tom, this does not help matters.

Through work in his journal, King gets an answer: a march from Selma to Montgomery.

So begins one of the most upsetting periods of our 20th century history and this film. Six hundred marchers joined SNCC members. They were promptly and savagely attacked by billy clubs and tear gas. This first protest is known as Bloody Sunday. While these scenes pummel the eye in sad flurries, they are necessary. Here is the depressing ugliness of racism laid bare as fat pink faces raise heavy sticks to hit and batter without mercy. DuVernay doesn't pull away.

The voice of reason is King working alone under a sculpture of Gandhi on his desk, tireless, tense and thoughtful as he ponders on resistance. Yet all is not pathos and gloom. There is a light to Oyelowo and a joy in getting things right, as there no doubt was to King himself. In several scenes, we see the icon eager and energized, young in fire and spirit. This is important. We see King as Martin, relaxed and inspired. Such moments are delivered with simplicity as if we are the camera's cohorts.

Oyelowo's performance is ultimately soft and fully nuanced, expressed in a delicacy of expression, akin to handwriting. The actor holds back, frets and gives in a sudden full roar of what should be and was once said.

The highest credit to"Selma" is that given this larger than life figure, a civil rights legend and a honorable meme (whose life should have been chronicled years earlier)  this person is offered in all of his fiery charismatic weight and gentle bearing.

In David Oyelowo, we feel the man.

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