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The importance of “Selma”

Civil Rights film is raw, radical, relevant

“Selma” is the most important film of the year.

“Birdman” may be the most technically creative. “Boyhood,” with its 10+ years of production, may be the most innovative. But “Selma,” depicting a powerfully moving moment in history during the Civil Rights Movement — and pulling its relevance into 2015 amid the Ferguson riots and protests against racially-charged police brutality nationwide — is without a doubt the most critical.

It is important not just because of the film’s content — though the subject matter does introduce to a young generation a moment in Civil Rights Movement history which is often underrepresented. But rather than chronicling an entire movement or recounting, in grand-biopic style, the entire lives of its leaders, director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb focus on a seminal, specific time and geographic location: Selma, 1965, after Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Opting for specificity is effective here — evoking Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which portrayed only the last four months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life. In doing so, DuVernay and Webb shift the focus from an individual (Martin Luther King Jr.) to a place and a moment, allowing the film to signal that its actions and events are greater than any one party involved.

The film’s importance does not only stem from its approach to historic narration — though DuVernay does avoid pretentious over-historicizing. The plushness and crescendo of strings that comes with certain biographical or historical films that try very hard to say “this is an important moment in history” (read: “Braveheart” or “The King’s Speech”) is not present here. Rather, “Selma” opts for depth in openly human — that is, flawed — characters and intimate close-ups juxtaposed with the larger events of the film, such as Bloody Sunday, the first Selma to Montgomery march and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

“Selma” also stands out as the most important film of the year for its ability to win the hearts of viewers with the question: what do you stand for? This film inspires its viewers to consider actions in the film — state troopers taking brutal steps toward Civil Rights activists and the slow governmental reactions that followed –— and comparing them to the riots and protests against police brutality this past year. Furthermore, how should those who are not directly affected by those events react — those who Martin Luther King Jr. called the “white moderates” in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, who he described as the “great stumbling block in [the] stride to freedom?”

“Selma” may avoid answering outright, but it leaves the tools of questioning in our hands to do what we will with them.

That the film was so unjustly received by the Academy of Motion Picture’s recently released nominations is unfortunate. David Oyelowo gives the performance of the year, bringing a stately, yet understated presence to the film as King. That he and Henry G. Sanders, who plays the father of murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson, were not nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor is a mistake on behalf of the Academy.


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