“Unfair advantages,” even when true, are a curse of perception. They prevent a work of art from vicious criticism, but they also prevent it from unreserved praise: it’s good, “but, of course, how could it not be?” Selma has more than its fair share of unfair advantages. Like half the Oscar nominees, it’s a biopic; like last year’s Twelve Years A Slave, it provokes stirring dialogue about race relations (all the more resonant in Ferguson’s wake;) and like Lincoln the year before, it centers around a beloved, charismatic icon: Martin Luther King. That is empirically Academy gold. One article will suggest it was “snubbed” at the Oscars due to prejudice, others will imply that fear of perceived prejudice is the only reason it’s even in the running, and the vicious cycle of obvious-points-masquerading-as-deep-think-pieces will run on.
While the truth of the story probably isn’t the reason I loved Selma, I also can’t separate its truth from my love for it. Nor do I think it’s remotely useful to try, as if the ideal target demographic were some society of emotionless humanoids, rather than real people, bringing the baggage of our too-recent histories to the theatre. Exposing tragic truths isn’t a narrative cop-out; communal grief and redemption aren’t cheap tricks. Selma is the story of Martin the man and King the symbol, and David Oyelowo’s ability to weave both personas into a single line of dialogue is seriously incredible. In any given scene he might begin as Martin the cautious pastor in mourning, til feeling in the dark he’ll trip over a poignant phrase and tumble into King the great orator, pushed by a momentum that didn’t originate in himself, breathless. Words don’t come to him — they happen to him like a tidal wave. And they happen just in time. The world DuVernay builds around those words is bleak, and regardless of “artistic liberties” taken in the political aspect, its deeper truths ring terrifyingly true. This is a very hard movie to watch. The scene at Edmund Pettus Bridge is absolutely harrowing: the heavy fog, the heightened, violent realism, a slowed-down “Masters of War” rolling through the dark like a funeral dirge. King isn’t even on that bridge: like us, he’s stuck behind a screen, powerless. Forced to fasten the triggers for others to fire, then sit back and watch when the death count gets higher. When his hymn rings out at the end, it’s as much an ode to tragic, calculated loss as to his legacy.
Other films will try to find the human element behind systemic racism: this is a film about acknowledging it, surviving it, and rising above it. I thought it was very well done, and if in a vacuum it’d fall a bit short of “masterful”, with the air in this particular theatre, in the same country where Beatlemania preceded the right to not be beaten on television for demanding dignity, it had more than enough impact. And none of it was fair.