Last Wednesday, after meeting a buddy for drinks at Weslodge, I saw an advanced screening of Ava DuVernay’s movie Selma (imdb | rotten tomatoes). It’s not being released to theatres until January, but TIFF arranged a one-time preview with the director and lead actor in attendance for a Q&A.
Centered around the marches from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights movement, the film switches the main focus of the original screenplay from Lyndon Johnson to Martin Luther King and the movement’s other leaders. David Oyelowo, playing Dr. King, did a tremendous job, though something in his physicality could never quite convince me he was King…I had to keep reminding myself who he was playing. He and DuVernay did focus much more on the quiet, personal moments of King — moments of doubt in a jail cell or a car, moments of strain with his wife, moments of compassion in a hospital, moments of levity in a friend’s kitchen — rather than constant speeches and fire, and that added something which I felt like I’d not seen before. Somehow, DuVernay pointed out, nearly 50 years after the event no feature film has ever been made about Selma with Dr. King at its centre.
Many of the questions from the audience related to the timing of the film, timing which DuVernay couldn’t have planned. The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and police violence in the film sat heavy in a room full of people inundated with images of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and DuVernay did point out that she felt the US has reached a point of racial unrest and reaction she hadn’t seen in her lifetime, even pointing out that the name ‘Ferguson’ is now a symbol and rallying cry in much the same way that Selma has become. In a less urgent (but no less insidious) development, the purpose of the Selma marches — the Voting Rights Act — is being systematically dismantled through voter ID laws and district gerrymandering.
There’s no doubt this is an important movie, and will be considered more important because of the macro environment surrounding its release. But it’s also a very good movie, with tremendous performances, and worth seeing on its own merits.
Cover photo by Damian Entwistle, used under Creative Commons license