Selma

Rating:

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Hello darlings, all of you beautiful people out there in the dark.  I’m writing this to you from 37,000 feet as I wing my way to Europe.  Unfortunately, there was a slight mix-up with the tickets and while I had been promised first class accommodations, I somehow ended up in the middle seat in economy and I am trying to keep my laptop from poking either of my neighbors, who seem to belong to a tour group from Omaha on a Mysteries of Mitteleuropa voyage. They’re all busy with their language translation apps and braying ‘Sprechen sie Anglisch’ at each other in excruciatingly bad accents. As I am wearing a pair of chamois skin lederhosen, dyed a lovely shade of lavender, for the trip, they keep taking me for a native and asking me all sorts of questions I cannot possibly answer.  I just smile vacantly and say ‘No habla’ and that usually suffices.

So, why am I trapped in this flying tuna can?  Exciting news, I am heading to Germany to play the central role of Brunhilde in a new site-specific production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Apparently, the previous actress tripped during a rehearsal over a poorly marked cable and took a header into the Rhine. The Rhine maidens, who were swimming nearby working on their water ballet, were able to fish her out but she had hit her head and the injury is apparently affecting her top notes, so she had to be replaced very quickly and at great expense.  How lucky I was to be sitting at home and available when the call came. The great DeWolfe, the opera impresario who has been so helpful to the more classical side of my career, got my name to the European consortium behind the production and several phone calls later, I found myself on my way to LAX. They are so grateful that I shall be joining them as they know my name alone will sell tickets and made the cable ‘Making of’ documentary a much more valuable property. 

As I understand it, the production is an on location theatrical extravaganza, finally presenting Wagner in its natural environment, fully freed from the conventions and limitations of the stage.  It’s one performance only and the audience is expected to follow the production as it moves through Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The Das Rheingold portion begins mid-river around the Lorelei rocks and is scheduled to begin tomorrow shortly after my arrival.  My perusal of the script and score shows that Brunhilde doesn’t show up for quite some time, so I and the director are going to have to have a few words and I have worked out a lovely little dream sequence for the Rhine maidens early in the first act so that I can have a major entrance reveal and a juicy part in the opening scenes.  I have my wetsuit packed and a tasteful canary yellow watered silk dress that hides it beautifully, just in case wardrobe doesn’t have anything ready.

Before adjusting my eye shade and getting some sleep, I scrolled through the film choices on the entertainment system and settled on Selma, the 2014 drama about Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggles to get the voting rights act passed.  The film was a labor of love by director Ava DuVernay, one of the first black women to find success as a director in Hollywood. With this film and her later television work, When They See Us, she has cemented her place as a teller of stories of the African American experience, probing the evils of systemic racism.  Working from a script by Paul Webb, she rewrote with him to create an often-told story much more from the African American perspective.  She had to do this while creating new speeches for Dr. King. The King family would not let his original words be used as they are under copyright and they had sold the rights to a competing project that never materialized.  Ms. Duvernay and Mr. Webb got it right. The fiery oratory coming from King in his scenes sounds absolutely authentic.

King is played by British actor David Oyelowo and he has a firm and dynamic presence whenever he is on screen.  He doesn’t look especially like Dr. King, but his force of personality keeps you riveted. A number of the key roles are held by Brits – Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson, as Lyndon Johnson, and Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace.  All are excellent. There’s not a weak performance in Selma in either major roles or in minor ones. I assume this is due to competent casting and Ms. DuVernay’s assured directorial touch. It was a bit of a Hollywood scandal when the movie got a nomination for best picture and Ms. DuVernay did not get one for best director.  She blends historical incident and footage together with fictional recreation into a seamless whole. I detected only one false note in her presentation, her portrait of Lyndon Johnson as an antagonist to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and using J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and the FBI for this purpose. Johnson was pretty much fully behind it prior to the incidents at Selma portrayed in the film but by giving King a strong antagonist, she is able to delve a little more deeply into the themes of systemic racism that so interest her, and I understand why the filmmakers did what they did.

Selma builds the stakes for King and the other characters by using composite and historical characters to flesh things out.  Oprah Winfrey has a cameo early on as an African American woman trying to register to vote which allows us to see all the tricks the white establishment used to keep the other in its place. The murder of the four little girls in the Birmingham church bombing is included to remind us of the time and of the stakes.  We see the cold-blooded murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson (rapper Lakeith Stanfield) in front of his family which acted as the immediate catalyst for the Selma march. We also meet Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) with his radically different ideas from King’s regarding the claiming of rights, see the beating death of the Reverend James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), the white Unitarian minister from Boston who answered King’s call for clerical support, and hear about, but don’t see the murder of Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), the white volunteer who had come south from Michigan to assist.  Her killing happened just after King’s victory speech on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery and the filmmakers, wanting to go out on a high note, did not include events that happened after that moment. Civil Rights legends who later became famous including John Lewis (Stephan James) and Andrew Young (Andre Holland) also make appearances and help provide necessary exposition.

I quite liked Selma.  It’s about an important chapter in American history.  It’s engrossing but feels real rather than hagiographical.  It’s meticulously researched and looks visually correct in terms of the details of fashion and design.  It’s playing a bit fast and loose with Lyndon Johnson is the only thing that’s preventing me from giving it five stars.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

Voter registration form. Urgent White House meetings. Gratuitous Giovanni Ribisi.  Baseball bat wrapped with barbed wire. Face slapping. FBI wire taps. Charging mounted State Troopers. Church meetings.  Black and white news footage. 

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

 Selma photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima – © 2014 Paramount Pictures.

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