As is the way with most historical dramas, Selma has found itself embroiled in controversy. The portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson as anti-progressive has sparked fierce debate about the credibility of Selma in certain circles, and has even been cited as reasoning for its apparent snubs at the Oscars. This then is a topic which needs a bit of deconstructing: so here we go…
As for the historical inaccuracies, I am not American, so I wasn’t particularly incensed by this. The film has sparked passionate debate, but I see that as only a good thing. Instead of leaving such issues to historians, they are now in the public eye: an academic tug of war will ensue, and hopefully we’ll all be left with something vaguely resembling understanding.
I knew President Johnson wasn’t such an obstacle, so I took his portrayal at face value. Because lets face it, having studied History, I know that there is never going to be an overwhelming consensus on any topic, except maybe whether Hitler was a nice guy or not. People must learn to take things on the chin and move on.
If you watch films and assume what you’ve seen should be taken as gospel, you’re going to struggle, and in more ways than one.
That leads onto the inevitable question of the Oscar snubs. There are some pretty telling statistics: 94% of the Academy is white and 77% are male, not exactly the most representative of groups then. There is then also the situation of Selma being nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song, only. A rather strange feat indeed, for a film to be nominated for Best Picture, yet be lacking sufficiently in almost every other department.
Now I’m not one for shouting conspiracy!!! And I certainly do not think that nominations and awards should be handed out based upon representation rather than merit: but what is a bit strange is that merit-where-merit-is-due has not been given.
I thought Bradley Cooper was very good in American Sniper, but better than David Oyelowo? No; sorry I just don’t see that one at all. Oyelowo is outstanding. He not only excels delivering Martin Luther King’s famous rhetoric, but also displaying his fragility, his uncertainty and a deepening sense of fatigue.
Ava DuVarney said she was not surprised she did not receive a nomination for Best Director: her comments were based upon her gender and race, but I’m not surprised simply because it’s a very tough year for Directors. She does a brilliant job, but then so did a number of directors this year. Had she directed something innovative like Birdman or Boyhood and not been nominated, alarm bells would have started ringing.
Selma is of course a highly emotive topic, which is still very much relevant in America today. Just look at the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and you’ll see how the issues echo throughout history. But the reality is, once you take a step back and examine Selma as a film and only a film, there is no arguing that it is exceedingly good.
I liked the snapshot element, rather than attempting to handle the Civil Right’s movement in its entirety. You get a full flavour of the movement, but in a way which is not in your face. The violence is handled tastefully and poignantly, and the interactions between Martin Luther King and the grieving allows for a rounded picture of his character. He did not always have the answers, and people did lose faith and question him.
The decision to encapsulate the events in Alabama was inspired. The localisation of a national issue, allows us to see the effects that Civil Rights had on everyday people, fighting for their basic rights. It by no means gets lost in the enormity of the issue, and is all the more moving because of it. It’s why it was chosen in the first place: it worked then, and it works now.
I would not be surprised at all if the criticism thrown at Selma has stemmed from those who are close to the continuing issue. Racism isn’t as apparent as it was in the 1960s, but it still exists. Why else would people dismiss the performance of David Oyelowo based upon the representation of a U.S. president? The two are completely separate.
People point to films such as 12 Years a Slave as evidence that the United States is finally becoming willing to examine the darker elements of its past, but its distance made it safer, and for those who are still unwilling to accept the past and the continuation of issues into the present, perhaps the events depicted in Selma are still a bit too fresh.
The debate will continue to rage on about Selma until the next controversial biopic or historical drama is released. But regardless of the wider debate, there is absolutely no questioning that Selma is a film worth watching.