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February 5, 2015 6:00 pm

Selma — film review

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From left, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, André Holland and Stephan James in 'Selma'

From left, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, André Holland and Stephan James in 'Selma'

You can whisper it in the Hollywood valleys, you can yell it from the Hollywood hills. “Good causes seldom make good movies.” It makes no difference: they keep churning them out. That there is no greater hokum than holiness, secular or divine, is as true of Selma — stunningly overpraised by some critics — as of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom : two movies in which the fight for black rights, instead of having a fiery and inspiring crackle, is like being hit over the head with a long, soggy sermonette.

The self-evident — that Martin Luther King in the 1960s helped transform a race’s future and a nation’s self-esteem — never, uninflected, makes good cinema. For that you need conflict, passion and the drama and unpredictability of a seeming “now”. See Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave . Here instead we get the dead-as-a-plank re-enactment of a pietised “then”: a 50-year-old battle of ideals between Good Guys (David Oyelowo’s MLK, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ in civil rights reform mode) and Bad Guys (Tim Roth’s Governor Wallace, keeping the Alabama hate fires burning) that seems exactly that: 50 years old.

The film is shot in lantern-slide scenes, each making its bromidic point while the music’s pious drizzle adorns the soundtrack. As the defiant, historic Selma-to-Montgomery protest march is planned and enacted, the lines of dialogue banally thud. (“This right here is the next great battle.”) To spare its own nationals from performing this stuff, the US brings in the UK. All the lead roles are played by Brits. Only before the main story’s battle dust rises, and as it begins to clear, does America hazard its own icons: Oprah Winfrey, no less, as the black woman in the prologue vainly battling for voting rights; later, Martin Sheen, liberalism’s ageless poster boy, as the judge ruling the legality of the march.


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