Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Few Thoughts on "Selma" as the First Trailer is Released

Left to right: David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo
As the race burns on, there's a few names that randomly pop up as late entries. Among them is director Ava DuVernay's Selma, which chronicles the events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.'s (David Oyelowo) march through Selma, GA back in the 60's. It is an important event and one that seems very opportune for a biopic. With the release of the first trailer for Selma, I figured that I would share some truths: I have already seen this film at an advanced preview. What I say should be taken as opinion, but reflective of how I feel that it will do in the race based on the compiled version, which admittedly was still going through edits at the time about a month ago.

For starters, this isn't anything like The Butler. Swipe out any notion that you have of these similarities. Going in, I assumed that with the presence of Oprah Winfrey as producer, this would be a very similar production. Even if I enjoyed Lee Daniels' racial exploration, I came away surprised by this. Of course, Selma is more rooted on a specific event and thus cannot span many decades. Still, to have the film come out at an opportune time during awards season, it felt like it was Winfrey's second try to get the awards race right. With a January release, it looks to be more on par. Still, the final product isn't nearly as campy or silly as The Butler. It is more stern in tone.

MLK is played by Oyelowo as a character with a lot of power and grace. He is a charismatic speaker with a loyal band of followers. There are even times where the director manages to play the sympathetic angle quite effectively. However, the line between sympathy and using violence for shock value is crossed a few times in ways that felt stylized. With Winfrey being the first to be struck, it felt self-serving and meant to play on the characters' emotions. This is the film's biggest problematic element. It knows that its message is important, but it spends time forcing that on the audience.

The performances are fine with Oyelowo being the main draw. However, the film feels very flat otherwise. If you know your history, the tale of MLK is already known. Sure, it has some memorable moments, but the film suffers from the humble moments in between. Beyond a few discussions with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), there isn't much draw to the characters. Everyone is secondary and the protests don't hold a deeper resonance as a result. At best, this is an above average movie that delivers an authentic looking film. The issue is that having had time to stew and think about it, I have trouble seeing its Oscar chances as more than a laugh.

Check out the first trailer:

Admittedly, that's actually a very strong sell for the film. The cut that I saw did not feature any hip-hop however. It did feature more authentic music of the era. If you're a stickler for that stuff, you can rest safely.

I want to also state that this movie isn't about MLK. It's about Civil Rights. The other main focuses include President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and George Wallace (Tim Roth). This trio puts in the best performances of the bunch. It is enough to make it engaging and cover its points. Yet because the film is about the struggles of the common man, I had trouble really connecting with the impressive cast that includes Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black), Common (Hell on Wheels), Andre Holland (The Knick) and Wendell Pierce (The Wire). To me, that's an impressive cast and a big reason I was drawn to the screening. However, I cannot recall too much that any of them did, which is a bad thing.

If I had to guess, I think that the film could stand an outside chance if the Civil Rights angle was played up. Speaking as historical figures have always done well in acting fields, I think that Oyelowo, who I was championing for a nomination with The Butler, stands the best shot. He does a really good job and carries the film for the most part. Everyone else is optional, though nominating Winfrey is offensive. She was really pointless emotional stimulation in this film. I think that if this follows in the field of The Help or 12 Years a Slave (the latter is more dark and serious), it will be making the cut. Speaking as I think that the Gone Girl hype is wrong (I personally think that it's too edgy for Oscar voters), this is a safe bet that works despite being tonally middle-of-the-road. It's a good movie, but I have trouble seeing this as anything but an attempt at Oscar bait.

Maybe I am just too lukewarm on the film to feel any enthusiasm at this point. I would need to hear the remaining feedback, including the upcoming feedback from the American Film Institute (AFI) Festival's showing of 30 minutes of footage. Maybe I just didn't respond to it. Still, I think it was too sentimental to be great. However, I will give you this. They put together a really strong trailer that definitely highlights the tension, which maybe isn't entirely in the film. So let me know what you think and I'll have a more professional review ready when the film is released.

Is Selma going to be an upset at the Oscars this year? Will David Oyelowo stand any chance at a Best Actor nomination? Do historical dramas get too much of a pass come awards time?

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