The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



It's a complete coincidence that Selma arrives on the heels of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. This would be a great film even if our country wasn't currently embroiled in discussions about racism, both blatant and institutional, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. But it is, and that makes the movie's themes stand out even more powerfully. Selma is about a historical event, yet it also feels incredibly current and relevant. Times have changed, just not as much as they should have.

It begins with Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) walking into an Alabama courthouse with the intention of registering to vote. We can tell she has been through this before. Once again, she is denied that right by the clerk, who asks her question upon question about the electoral process until he finds one she cannot answer. He isn't openly discriminating; he's clearly trying to make it look on paper that she doesn't qualify to register. The message, nevertheless, is clear: Annie Lee Cooper is black, and the system doesn't want her voting.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his team, well aware of this sort of discrimination, set up shop, working to organize a march from Selma to the courthouse in Montgomery as a means of peacefully protesting the fact that blacks are repeatedly subject to arcane regulations that prevent them from voting. A natural leader and dynamic speaker, King quickly amasses a following. This makes Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) deeply uncomfortable. He sends local police out to disrupt the demonstrations, which they do through intimidation and violence. Meanwhile, King attempts to rally President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to the cause. But LBJ, despite outwardly supporting civil rights, wants to put it on the back-burner for political reasons. King knows the only thing to do is force the President's hand. He carefully plans to put so much pressure on the authorities, big and small, that they will have no choice but to allow the march to take place.

There are two kinds of historical dramas when it comes to the civil rights issue. On one hand, you've got films like Lee Daniels' The Butler, which present a very clean, straightforward, Cliff's Notes-style recounting of its events. Movies of this sort can be touching, but not necessarily enlightening. Selma, on the other hand, is the opposite of simple. Like Spike Lee's Malcolm X, it goes much, much deeper into the subject matter and has a certain psychological precision. We see MLK formulating his strategy, weighting the costs and potential hazards of every possible move. Some of the best scenes find him debating with his closest advisers, trying to figure out how to most effectively achieve victory with the smallest negative impact. We also see King, and those around him, reacting to every success and setback. The film goes in deep, making you feel like you're one of King's followers, getting ready to join in the march.

Selma additionally shows the astonishing bravery the marchers displayed. They knew they would be facing angry, armed police officers and openly hostile white bystanders. A sequence set on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on the day known as “Bloody Sunday,” is a fine example of how the film gets things just right. The portrayal of what happened on that bridge is harrowing. Just as impactful, though, are the parts where King figures out how to up his game, using the media and national religious leaders to draw attention to the racist opposition taking place. In other words, Selma helps you understand, beat by beat, how civil rights activists used every setback as an opportunity to move forward. Ava DuVernay's compassionate direction, coupled with Paul Webb's literate screenplay, ensure that this is not just a dramatization of the civil rights marches but rather an inspiring examination of them.

David Oyelowo gives the performance of the year as MLK. Much like Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, he absolutely channels the late leader, making the viewer feel every ounce of outrage, drive, and intelligence, as well as how those things interact to fuel King's actions. Oyelowo is so thoroughly credible that you forget you're watching an actor and simply become invested in the character. Everyone in the supporting cast brings their A-game, as well. It all adds together into an unforgettable movie experience.

Blessedly, Selma doesn't end with Martin Luther King's death. It ends where it should, on a note of victory for racial equality. This is not a movie about how people were put down because of the color of their skin. It is a movie about how people took pride in the color of their skin and rose up in unison to fight for the rights constitutionally given to them by this great country. They were true patriots, and Selma honors them elegantly.

( out of four)

Selma is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.

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