Sunday, August 16, 2015
I'd actually forgotten this movie was around. That is until I logged onto the homepage for my local library and I saw both this, and another movie that I wanted to watch in the "What's Hot?" section of the website.
This movie came in fairly quickly. The other one I'm still on hold for, and will possibly be stuck in line until sometime next year.
So Mark Wahlberg's Gambler is gonna have to wait until... Whenever I get it. For now, we've got Selma to analyze. And boy, oh boy. Are we in for a doozy here.
In case you didn't know, Selma is about the American Civil-Rights movement, lead by one Martin Luther King Jr.
Not the whole movement, mind. Just part of the movement which took place in Selma.
Now, as someone who has both done a lot of research into the Civil-Rights movement, and as someone who has access to the bastion of knowledge that is the internet, I feel like I'm in a pretty good position to evaluate this movie. I'm not saying I'm any major civil-rights scholar, but I feel like I know enough about it to be pretty fair.
I made it a point to not read the Wikipedia page for this movie before I saw it. That's sort of become my policy these days, to not do any research on a film until after I've finished watching the movie, or playing the game, or reading the book or whatever.
After I'm done, I research the subject of the review to death. I try and find out any and every little background detail I can to get as much of the picture of how the movie was made into my head when I'm writing a review.
But when something is based on material I know pretty extensively, issues with it start popping out at me without even having to have a reference on-hand.
That's the case here. Selma is based on a period of human history that I've done a lot of research on. The only periods that I think I know better would have to be either World War II or The American Revolution.
I know I'm not the first person to criticize Selma's historical inaccuracies, and I probably won't be the last, but that's what I have to do.
Now, I'm not a 100% stickler for historical accuracy, especially when the history is over a hundred years old. I'm not gonna say that you should be making a Robin Hood movie accurate to history, because there's no way you could actually research that. Nobody even knows if Robin Hood actually existed.
And yes, I like a lot of more recent historical fiction as well. And no, they're not entirely accurate to history. I'm not going to try and say that Captain America: The First Avenger is anywhere near being historically accurate, and I think that's one of the best war movies I've seen.
But you see, Captain America is about a group of fictional characters. This movie is about real people, and some of those real people are actually still alive to dispute what this movie says. And it's not just the subjects of the movie that could dispute it, it's the people who were actually there while it was going on. Who saw the movement in action. Who knew people who marched, or who marched themselves.
Now, the director of the movie Ava DuVernay has said that the movie is "a work of art about the people of Selma, not a documentary".
She's also said that she "doesn't see (her)self as the custodian of anyone's legacy" and she is "Not a historian, (she's) a storyteller."
Now, US Representitive John Lewis (Portrayed in the movie by Stephan James) has said that "We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?"
So no, historical accuracy is not 100% necessary. You don't have to make the hairstyles look completely like they would have back then, and I'm not about to complain that David Oyelowo doesn't look exactly like Martin Luther King Jr did. The big deal is that a lot of the stuff this movie gets wrong is public knowledge.
That's the issue. The whole marketing behind the movie was that it was about the actual events of Selma. That it was about the people behind the movement and their struggles to fight for human rights. And when you make a movie about those people, about those events, people have certain expectations going in. And even for people like me, who purposefully don't expose themselves to marketing for films have a certain expectation about the content of the movie. Just by the fact that it's about the civil-rights movement, and that the main character is Martin Luther King Jr creates the expectation that it's going to be accurate to history. That makes it a biopic, and biographies are seen as accurate depictions of a persons life, be it their whole life, or just a small part of their life.
And I have no doubt that people have been misinformed by this movie, who don't even know what all this movie got wrong. People who take it as 100% fact because it's a biography movie, and biographies are supposed to be based in actual reality.
So that's why I would demand accuracy from this movie, because that was the expectation going into it.
As a biographical film-maker, Ava DuVernay had the responsibility to provide us, the viewers with a movie that was based in fact. She had the responsibility to be respectful to the memories of the people she was portraying in this film, and she failed to do that.
The first big issue that really pops out is Martin Luther King Jr's speeches. The crew behind Selma was unable to get the rights to MLK's actual speeches, because Warner Brothers got the rights to them for a movie they're making, with Steven Spielberg at the helm. Apparently it's been in development since 2009, and we haven't seen anything much from it, but the important thing is that they've got the real speeches for it.
That's the thing, if you're making a movie about someone who is known for being a great speaker, and you can't get the rights to his speeches (As if they should even be under copyright anyways, they were public speeches made for the sake of the human race as a whole) you don't make that movie.
No. I don't want to hear your re-tooled speeches that sound similar but skirt copyright, I don't care. An MLK movie without his speeches isn't worth a whole lot.
Our Friend Martin wasn't a particularly good movie, but it had the I Have A Dream speech. It actually felt like it respected what it was talking about.
And yeah, the speeches that are made in this movie are perfectly fine. If they'd been the actual speeches, they would have worked fine. But I know a lot MLK's speeches practically by memory, and no matter how hard I tried to just accept the movie for what it was, there's just so much that doesn't sit well with me.
For instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson is portrayed as reluctant and antagonistic towards MLK. When I was watching the movie, that was the first thing that really stuck out to me as being out of place. And sure enough, I was right. Johnson was a lot more proactive in real life than he was in this movie. He was a champion of civil-rights legislation.
And Joseph A. Califano, Jr. who was Johnson's top domestic policy adviser (Including on civil-rights issues) said that the depiction of Johnson was terrible in this movie.
Andrew Young (Portrayed by Andre Holland in this movie) SCLC activist and US Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, and Mayor of Atlanta said that Johnson and King were both mutually respectful, and that both understood the others issues.
Also, the movie makes it seem like Johnson ordered King to be spied on, but in actuality, it was Robert F. Kennedy who signed the order. Not to mention that the order was given before Johnson took office.
Others, such as urban policy analyst Peter Dreier mentioned that the movie marginalized the American Jews who participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Now, do I think any of this was done intentionally? Maybe. Some of it was definitely done in the name of fueling drama, like the aforementioned conflicts between King and President Johnson. The speeches were definitely changed on purpose, as we've already established. Everything else that they got wrong I'd say was probably either done for the sake of drama, like I said earlier, or they didn't care enough to check their facts, preferring to follow their artists vision as opposed to actual history.
Considering that Oprah Winfrey was a producer on the film, and that her company Harpo Films was apparently heavily involved in the production of Selma, I would have expected her to squash the false information and steer the movie straight on the facts. My disappointment in this film is immense.
But, that's not to say that it's a bad movie, just a disappointing one. It's very well-made, and well acted.
The cast is just great, from the main cast, even going on into the supporting cast. And the supporting cast has some of my favorite actors in it. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Grey, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, and Martin freaking Sheen as Frank Minis Johnson!
Hell, this is a really good movie, even with all of the big issues it has! It's worth watching as a starting point if you want to start looking into civil-rights history, but it's not the end-all, be-all you'd think it would be.
And something else. It's also an incomplete biopic. It stops right after the third Selma march, and starts right when King got his Nobel Peace Prize. So it covers only a small chunk of King's life and activism.
I have no doubt that in a few years, we'll eventually see a miniseries based on King's life that's far more accurate to history, and as good, if not better than this movie we're covering here.
Looking back on this review, I feel no need to cover the actual plot of the movie. It'd be both too depressing, and pointless. Pretty much everyone knows what happened in the civil-rights movement, so me recounting the plot of this movie would just be filling space.
One more thing I feel I should mention is that there is a time-skip in the middle of the movie that misses a few weeks of time. There's no mention of any amount of time passing, and it takes a bit of thinking to figure out what just happened.
Now that we've covered all of the historical issues, the fact that the movie is but a chunk of the whole civil-rights movement, and how good I thought the acting was, let's talk about the theme-song.
The late James Bevel is portrayed by Common, and he performs the theme-song to Selma with John Legend, Glory.
Glory plays during the credits of the movie over a montage of pictures of the participants in the civil-rights movement. It's a Soul/Hip-Hop crossover song, written by Legend, Common, and Che Smith.
Considering that it's an original song written for the movie it's featured in, you'd think I'd like it, right? I like a lot of original music created for movies, but I don't like this song.
Let me go ahead and dust off my music-critic hat for a bit, and break it down. Now where's that single cover?
So, what's specifically wrong with this song? Or more to the point, what do I think is wrong with this song?
Well, I like John Legend's music. I think he's a really good singer and pianist, and I've listened to quite a few of his songs. Which is quite the opposite of my experience with Common. I've never listened to a Common song aside from this one, I never heard of him before now, and I was not compelled to listen to any Common songs after hearing this one.
Now, I do really like John Legend's work on this song. It's on-par with the quality of his other work, and it's good.
Now let's talk about Common's work on the song. I'm not particularly well-versed in rap that doesn't include Eminem, LL Cool J, Will Smith or Linkin Park, but I would like to think that I know enough about it to make some kind of informed judgement.
Common's flow seems kind of weird. It doesn't feel energetic enough to be rap, but it's too fast to be spoken-word poetry. There also seem to be some editing issues (At least on the version that made it into the DVD credits and onto YouTube), with Common's voice just dropping out right before John Legend comes in.
And I listened to this part of the song over several times. There's no doubt about it, right before the final chorus, Common's voice just drops out.
Anyways, the more I listened to this song the more I began to think that this sounded like someone took a John Legend song and a Common song and just smashed them together, regardless of compatibility.
The best comparison I can make seems to be a similar song by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, See You Again. That song sounds like someone took a Charlie Puth song and a Wiz Khalifa song together without regard for compatibility.
Thing is, with See You Again it actually was a Charlie Puth song and a Wiz Khalifa song smashed together. Charlie Puth wrote the original version of the song as a farewell to a friend of his who had died in a car accident, and Atlantic Records added in rap-verses by Wiz Khalifa afterwards.
I can't find any details on whether that's true about this song or not, but it certainly sounds like it had that fate from the editing. If anyone in the audience has any details about whether or not someone at Columbia Records smashed two very different songs together in the hope of taking two stars and making an even bigger hit out of them, let me know. It certainly didn't have the same kind of performace See You Again did, peaking at #49 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Another thing it has in common with See You Again is that both songs are essentially carried by their pianists, rather than the rapper.
Honestly, while it's not terrible, I think that the song would have been much better if John Legend had just made the entire song, rather than collaborating with Common. Common's verses just feel clumsy, and out-of-place. Just like Wiz Khalifa did on See You Again.
So I don't particularly like Glory, but I don't think it's too bad either. I've heard worse, but I've also heard better.
And I don't think Glory deserved to win the 87th Academy Award for Best Original Song. Everything Is Awesome, from The Lego Movie, and Immortals, from Big Hero 6 were both better songs, and both of them were more deserving of the award.
Now, let's get to the final rating for both the song, and the movie itself.
All in all, the movie is disappointing in its content, but actually pretty well-made in the end. And the theme-song, Glory, is a poorly-edited Rap/Soul crossover that doesn't really sit too well with me.
I give Selma a 6.5* rating, and Glory a 5.2* rating. Neither are too bad, but then again, neither are too spectacular in the end either. Selma especially, considering its pretensions towards being an epic, yet not managing to get a whole lot right.