Review: ‘Selma’ Eats Spielberg’s Lunch

I’m convinced Selma is the movie Spielberg has been trying to make these past few years – a smart, beautifully executed, relevant, unabashedly pop crowd pleaser that elucidates a historical event we didn’t truly understand, even if we thought we did. Actual insight, from a biopic! It’s an awards season miracle.

Truthfully, I almost didn’t even want to see it. Everything about it screamed self-serious, self-congratulatory awards bait, right down to Oprah’s name among the producer credits. (Overheard right before the film started: “Did Oprah have something to do with this movie or am I just being terribly racist? …Oh thank God.”) I want to see movies because I want to see them, not because I’m supposed to. Important subject ≠ important movie. But other than a few inexplicable Oprah reaction shots peppered throughout (she plays one of the marchers, which I assume was a condition of having her name attached to it), there’s very little to criticize about this film.

Selma tells the story of one of MLK’s lesser-known crusades, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been passed and King had already won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Even after segregation had officially been outlawed, white southern election workers still had plenty of clever little tricks for disenfranchising black voters – the poll tax, the literacy test, publishing the names and addresses of those who registered in the local papers as the 1960s equivalent of doxxing – so much so that some heavily black counties in the south had zero registered black voters.

If the most frequently told Civil Rights stories deal with the earlier battles, that’s probably because overt segregation is a simpler story, with a more cathartic ending. But the subtle disenfranchisement was just as bad and much harder to fight, and that’s where Selma begins.

It cleverly illustrates the problem with a brutally succinct and intense depiction (like, legit jump scare) of the 1963 4 Little Girls bombing in Birmingham. For MLK, played with just enough flourish but never ham by David Oyelowo, this becomes the perfect framing device. Two years after the fact, no one has been brought to justice, because, as MLK frames it to LBJ, the white-controlled police departments won’t bring charges, and even if they do, the white-controlled juries won’t convict, and black people have no way to boot them out of office because they can’t register to vote. This succinct, perfectly articulated “Now! Now! Now!” moment is like everything Lincoln wanted to be, but better, and with less grandstanding and Sally Field wearing bonnets.

This is where the Selma to Montgomery marches come in. Still, to say MLK and company beat voter discrimination by organizing a march is simplistic to the point of near meaninglessness, and Selma‘s astute grasp of this one important point is what makes it so much better than your usual uplifting speech flick.

I’m reflexively terrified of a film about a protest march. I can’t help but worry that it’s going to be two hours of people holding hands and looking dignified, silently looking to the Heavens to protect their righteous cause. Yes, civil rights workers were courageous, I think we’ve all seen that movie. But Selma puts the lie to the value of symbolic gestures.

I sometimes wonder if we’ve all seen so many shitty protest biopics and been lectured by our Be-in Boomer parents so much that we honestly think just complaining loudly enough about a problem will make it go away. Selma depicts MLK’s organizations not just as something he did because it was right, like the little pastor who could, but as a calculated risk/reward political gambit every single step of the way. The drama of Selma isn’t simplistic good vs. evil, it’s a political chess match. Like House of Cards, but with less dog murder and nudity (for better and worse).