Embraced by critics and audiences alike, SELMA was named one of the best films of the year by New York Times, New York Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and many more. The film was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Picture and won the Oscar® for Best Original Song for John Legend and Common's compelling tribute "Glory."
Director Ava DuVernay delivers the "definitive depiction of the 1960s American civil rights movement" (Lou Lumenick, New York Post) with the incredible story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the epic march from Selma to Montgomery to secure equal voting rights in an event that forever altered history. 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary march.
In the spring of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the Civil Rights Movement and, by extension, the eyes of the entire world to a small Alabama hamlet where ruthless bigots and white supremacists were openly violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the crux of the dispute: the right to vote. While it was legal for "the Nego" to vote, the registration process was controlled by people who would find anyway possible to deny the application.
As the conflict in Selma, Alabama wore on, King himself was jailed along with this fellow activists, while many others were severely beaten, and a tragic few were murdered by men who not only hid behind white hoods and burning crosses, but also by men who openly wore a badge of law.
King's plan was as simple as it was provocative. A media savvy man, he needed a hotbed of racism where they could, using passive resistance, spark violence publicly. Where the media would come and show it to the entire world, putting enough pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson to take the next logical step, a Voting Rights Act.
King -- played with presence, power, and vulnerability by David Oyelowo -- is known for his great oratory skills, for his non-violence. He has, in the fifty years since these events, become much more than a man. The face of a movement. A myth. 'Selma' aims to deconstruct the myth and tell the story of an ordinary man, and of the ordinary men and women, who did something extraordinary.
As such, the film showcases a wide number of perspectives. King's inner circle and in-movement conflicts. King's relationship with his wife, Coretta, and his infidelities. King's arguments with LBJ. We also get to know other members of the movement, both black and white, as well as Alabama Governor George Wallace. Through these plentiful perspectives, we get to feel everyone's fears and frustrations, their hopes and dreams.
'Selma' is a staggeringly ambitious film that sets its sights on not just being another dry biopic. It has the guts to humanize all but the most tyrannical characters (that would be the people waiving confederate flags and N-word signs). It is elegantly produced and directed. And it chronicles a pinnacle event in one of the most volatile eras of our nation's young history. It is a story that, given the events of 2014-2015, remains as relevant as ever.
Does Selma The Film ever live up to Selma The Real Event? Can it? Should it? Maybe those are the wrong questions -- Reality is always more important than a Movie -- but my intention in asking is more about investigating the stand-alone quality of the film. Biopics suffer when they assume that, because these events really happened, the audience will be engaged by the story. Therefore biopics (or based on true stories film) must walk a complex tightrope between what writer Paul Webb calls in the special features "Documentary vs. Drama".
In that sense, and as I said above, I applaud this film's ambition. There are incredible small moments here where King interacts with his wife. And I was incredibly moved by how the filmmakers wove in the Jackson family, juxtaposing the tragedy of Jimmie Lee Jackson's brutal murder and his 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee Jackson, becoming the first in his family to vote. These moments of personal strife, of an expanded pallet, are things director Ava DuVarney brought to the film.
Yet, 'Selma' sometimes feels like it's casting too wide a net. There are so many voices, and though there's a lot of balance and effort put into defining each character, it's sometimes hard to keep track. To give each enough screen time. I suspect this film will grow more rich with repeated viewings, as we get a chance to catch new details. It also makes me wonder what a three hour cut, or what a limited series could have been like. In other words, I enjoyed the characterizations so much I wish there was more time to explore them. On the other hand, perhaps the current film could have be a wee bit more engaging with a more focused POV. Who knows, really. For all the great, intimate moments, I found some of the material to be a little thin.
Also, before we wrap things up, I suppose it's my duty to comment on what some in the media have called a controversy -- apparently some viewers have taken umbrage over the LBJ depiction. IE, he was unfairly vilified. Look, I can't speak to the historical accuracy. Did he have these exact conversations on these exact days? I don't know. Honestly I don't care, because all movies, true story or not, are compressed and stylized versions of reality. That said, I honestly don't understand the complaint in anyway. From my perspective, LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) has the most interesting character arc in the whole film**. Not kidding. His roll is complex, a politician trying to move chess pieces in a challenging world. And, spoiler alert, he eventually grows (cinematically speaking) and does a courageous and bold thing. To me, his character is awesomely human.
'Selma' was one of the few Awards Season movies I missed last year, which left me eager to sign up for this Blu-ray review. I was a bit nervous. After hearing months of praise and hype, would I personally be in a place (not expecting too much) to enjoy the film on it's own merits? To that question, I say I enjoyed 'Selma'. As we discussed, it might be a little too ambitious at times, overloading us with characters who probably deserve much more time on screen, but that's okay. I'd rather ambitious and having to do a little after-movie homework than something bland and ordinary. To that end, for my two pennies, 'Selma' is a very good movie that flirts with brilliance. And I can't wait to see where Ava DuVarney takes her team and her career.
**I want to clarify the "most interesting arc" comment. Obviously 'Selma' isn't The LBJ Story, and I'm not trying to say he was the best character or most important. But LBJ's character, as defined in this film, is the one that starts and ends the movie in very different places, which makes his "growth" stand out in a movie with mostly a-typical movie character arcs. What does that mean? Well, most of the other characters, King specifically, begin the story Already Being Right. Their dramatic structure isn't one of personal change, but rather of Changing The World. So not classic Protagonist stuff. In this context, LBJ's arc is dramatic and different. Does that make sense? Another great character arc is John Lewis, who rebells against the inner politics of his student group to join King's movement.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
'Selma' debuts on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment as part of a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD (Ultraviolet OR iTunes -- redeem by 5/5/2017). There are no trailers.
'Selma' marches on Blu-ray with a stylized and faithful AVC MPEG-4 encode of the film framed in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
'Selma' is an interesting Blu-ray to review for high definition. It is a movie filled with intentional stylization, dramatic compositions, and a lighting / color palette quit similar to the darkness of the original 'Godfather'. It's not sepia, but the film is desaturated with a limited palette, one that evokes the period setting and the dour circumstances of this universe. Director of Photography Bradford Young boldly pushes for natural lighting, whether or not that means underexposing portions of the frame, or even entire scenes. What makes this incredible is that all of this stylization still allows for natural skin tones and leaves shadow details intact.
The downside to the way the movie was made is that contrast and dynamic range are pretty well trashed. Black levels are murky and grey at most compared to the letter boxing black bars. And the image is often flat. I also saw one blink-and-you-miss-it moment of banding, but otherwise no compression errors or artifacts. Lastly, there are some anamorphic lens focus issues, which again is totally fine, but not the makings of what we would call perfect high definition video.
'Selma' chants and sings its way onto Blu-ray with a well-rounded English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
As a dialog-driven film, 'Selma' isn't going to be anyone's demo disc, but this lossless audio tack does a great job of doing what it's tasked to do. The dialog is crystal clear. Music is enveloping. Sound effects, particularly gun shots or other evocations of violence, are chilling. As one would expect, there's no real sense of aggressive panning or intense LFE aside from the one explosion. But that's okay.
The following bonus materials are found on both the Blu-ray and DVD releases:
Selma Student Tickets: Donor Appreciation (HD, 2:57). A thank you to the donors who made it possible for the filmmakers to give out 300,000 tickets for students to see this movie.
National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (HD, 7:50). A look at the Selma, Alabama museum dedicated to the "foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960s". Much like Steven Spielberg's work with chronicling the lives of World War II Veterans, this museum collects personal items as well as video and audio interviews with the people, big and small, who fought alongside the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the rights of all Americans.
'Selma' is a heartbreaking and inspirational film that uses one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's defining battles to shine a light on a volatile and dangerous era. It is a highlight reel of bold filmmaking and terrific performances that, for me, is a very good movie that flirts with brilliance.
I would highly recommend everyone see this film at least once. Maybe you'll get a more human picture of a great man. Maybe you'll learn a little history. Maybe you'll get a deeper sense of a cultural experience you have never known. Or maybe you get a chance to connect with your heritage. Maybe it can simply spark a decision about the parallels between the 1960s and the 2010s. The results and reactions will be different for everyone (and by no means is mine The Correct One), but definitely check this film out.
As a Blu-ray, it offers a faithful video presentation (that doesn't always make perfect high definition), a solid sound mix, and numerous HD Exclusives. For fans of the film, it's Highly Recommended. For everyone else, I'm not really sure how much one would want to revisit it given that it's not exactly escapist fair. Nor should it be; I'm simply approaching this section as, should I spend my $20 bucks to own this for ever. Some may want to rent first before buying. Overall, let's call this one recommended.