‘Selma’ Stumbles

The movie needed to be made, but it lacks vitality

It’s bizarre to contrast the Academy-lauded hit American Sniper with Selma. The latter, made for all the best reasons, was shut out of the voting, while American Sniper‘s multiple lies are being defended by the usual suspects.

Recalling the “sheep, wolves, sheepdog” speech in Eastwood’s dreadful film, see how many Twitterites are embracing the hashtag “sheepdog.” (Apparently, in times of stress and division, you may even rehab the slur “sheeple” as a badge of honor.)

Wishing won’t make Selma a more energized movie, despite its suspenseful finale during Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Note that the bridge still bears the name of a Klansman. There’s nothing like the South to make one reach for the Faulkner line about how the past isn’t even the past.

Selma is Ava DuVernay’s stiff account of the brave stand of Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) against the Alabama state police, and the vigilante thugs who tried to block King’s peaceful 1965 march to Montgomery. In scenes of men and women bracing themselves to absorb violence, DuVernay impresses with a sense of history being made. This film is nothing but timely: yesterday’s poll taxes gave way to today’s caged voters.

King’s failings—his quarrels with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo)—can finally be mentioned in a biopic, as can the extent of his constant harassment and surveillance by the FBI. Oyelowo plays King with understated dignity, and DuVernay labors not to make a plaster saint out of the man, seeking the tensions concealed under such solid conviction.

But it’s a tension-breaker when the director spreads the story wider to the offices of Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, the most low-sodium Johnson ever) and Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth). Both are great actors, but both are so wrong for their parts. Unlike Eastwood’s mindless celebration of gunshot wounds, Selma is a movie that needed to be made. The pity is that, on the whole, Selma‘s pulse is so faint.

‘Selma’ is playing in wide release.