Selma is a interesting film on several counts and, given recent events in the US, a powerfully prescient and utterly engaging account of Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. The performances are well rounded (although one wonders where Tim Roth will go next after playing George Wallace and Sepp Blatter, surely Walter Palmer is all that is left) and the script does a great job of highlighting the tactical, and provocative, nature of peaceful protest.
In terms of telling a cinematic tale, the really smart choice here is putting the focus on a march. The language of cinema is, due to it’s visual nature, simple and the act of walking works perfectly on film. Walking on film is about agency, it’s the ultimate expression of individual freedom and forward movement. Think about Tony Manero strutting, the Wild Bunch going to their chosen fate, Lawrence walking out of the desert. Walking is so important that there are whole films based around not walking; Light Sleeper (1992), Taxi Driver (1976), Cosmopolis (2012) and many more see cars as isolation / retreat from the world. On film people walk for defiance, acceptance and belonging. I can’r help but think about the fact that my wife can’t walk home alone at night and what that says about the ownership of public space.
Selma is all about when to walk and why and, most importantly, who is taking those steps. It reclaims the cinematic portrayal of the Civil Rights struggle from Forrest Gump (white Southern manners ended that school segregation didn’t you know) and heroic FBI agents and hands it to it’s rightful owners.
I didn’t catch Dallas Buyers Club on it’s cinema release. I wanted to see it but one thing led to another and, you know, life, etc, etc but I didn’t, well couldn’t avoid the buzz and, of course, it’s McConaughey. As luck would have it, or not, I’ve received my rental copy the week following the British TV première of Ryan Murphy’s rather excellent The Normal Heart.
In fairness, whilst both films start with AIDS they are about entirely different things but the stories and characters chosen are symptomatic of the difference in attitude between the small and large screen. The latter is a stirring campaign film, a cry, a disaster movie in which the approaching monsoon is apathy and ignorance. It also runs a nice sideline in representing the tension between the simplistic answer of ‘stop having sex’ and the very real, but rarely explained/contextualised, idea of sexual activity itself being a political act.
The former is a personal drama in which the virus forces the straight protagonist to meet gays and, shock horror, they turn out to be people and history is cherry-picked to allow us progressive 2014 folks to feel that, just like Forrest and his good ol’ ways escorting that girl into school and breaking segregation, we would have done something. Wouldn’t we? Didn’t we? No. The proof is history. I suppose it’s saving grace is that the central character isn’t exactly altruistic but even with that focus the film doesn’t have much to say.
Of course both films are well acted, directed and blah blah blah.
One of them is recommended.
For a devastating look at the arrival of HIV/AIDS I would recommend the brilliant documentary We Were Here (2011).