Selma: The Exceptional Biopic

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I absolutely hate biopics because of the shameless way they game critical acclaim. Let’s take last year’s “Twelve Years A Slave,” for example.
I thought “Twelve Years” was a decent horror story and a thoroughly mediocre movie.  It had a few nice tricks, but the directing was pedestrian, the pacing turgid (and perhaps as a conscious directorial choice to make the audience feel the endlessness of slavery, but boring is still boring), and the writing functional.  On my own, I would have given it a B- in the way I did “Saw” – effective at making audiences wince, cathartic, but not much more.
But see, the magic of biopics is that if you make a film about something Truly Important, criticizing the story slurs right into criticizing the subject matter.
“How can you dislike Twelve Years?” people cried.  “Well, you must be for slavery!  How can you dismiss this whole experience?”
Except I’m not.  I think the historical relevance of Twelve Years is great, I’m glad we got a major motion picture on slavery (which hardly ever happens), I’m thoroughly anti-slavery.
However, I thought this picture was crappy.  I wish the story as presented was better.  I wish we had tons of films about slavery, the same way we have endless films on white people in the Regency era swanning through England, so we could see just how tedious this was by comparison.
Likewise, a Great Film about Gandhi or Alan Turing or anyone historically important becomes immediate Oscar-bait, because if you don’t like the movie then you must not recognize the greatness of Gandhi!
Worse, biopics lend themselves to what I call “Capote syndrome,” where you make a movie with one great performance – Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely nailed it – but the film itself is wandering, and not particularly interesting, and so yeah, it absolutely deserves to win “Best Actor” but everyone else is meh.  (Likewise, I thought “Twelve Years” housed two great performances, wrapped in a big ball of meh.  I liked “Lincoln” just fine, but you take Daniel Day Lewis out of that film and it vanishes.)
So no; try though people might to conflate the historical importance with the cinematic execution, it’s possible to have a mediocre movie about a transforming historical figure.  And it’s possible I’m wrong about “Twelve Years” – we’ll see if anyone’s still watching it in a decade or two.  We all know that critics are often wrong, and I could be so here.  But my point is that thanks to public reaction, the distinction vanishes so it becomes hard to critique the film without seeming to dismiss the event.
(And that doesn’t mean that a mediocre movie won’t hit home and hit home hard for some.  Right now, I’m dealing with mourning for my goddaughter, who died of brain cancer.  Show me any movie about kids being sick, I fall apart.  But that doesn’t make those movies great movies or anything; they’re just plucking at heartstrings that are extremely tender.  Likewise, I don’t doubt that a film like, say, “The Butler” or “American Sniper” was absolutely moving for many people, but I question whether that’s because the movie was good or – like me and Rebecca – it was an average film that unearthed some super-intense memories.)
Now, after 500 words of trashing biopics….


Selma is not some recreation of a man – it symbolizes the heart of the conflict of the Civil Rights movement, putting you firmly in the shoes of African-Americans in the 1960s and showing all the trials they had to face.
And Selma does not pull punches in the flaws of its characters, the conflicts that threatened to rip the Civil Rights movement apart.  Not all Negroes cheerfully lined up behind Martin Luther King; we see the militant wing of Malcolm X nipping at his heels, the local activists who are pissed that King has swept in to make a media show of a town they’ve been working for years to improve.
It pulls no punches in saying that MLK went to a town where the Sheriff was cool-headed enough not to beat the shit out of black people on national TV, and he failed, and he is choosing Selma because it will be a nice visual bloodbath to shock America into having some febrile nature of a conscience.
It shows how easily MLK could have been crushed, if LBJ had decided that he wanted King gone, and yet for all of LBJ’s good will MLK still needed to force LBJ’s hand so once again, the Negro’s right to vote wouldn’t be shuffled under in a tide of “We’ll get to that later.”
What we get with Selma is a story – and a good story, one filled with tension, because even though you know it works out you get to see the toll it took on the men who got us there.  It doesn’t pull away from the hard decisions; it leans into them, letting you see just how brave these people were without putting them on a pedestal where they’re just Big Damn Heroes.
Selma is as good as people say it is. And it’s an uncomfortable movie, but it’s also not torture porn; it shows you what you need to know, and does not shy away – that lingering shot of the dead girls at the beginning sets the stakes – but it’s more concerned with the living than the dead.  When Martin Luther has to go talk to a man whose grandson has died, the scene where he tries in vain to comfort the living takes twice as long as the death scene.  And that’s purposeful.  We feel the resonation of the deaths long after they’re gone.
Selma is modern.  It doesn’t have to stretch for parallels – though it’s largely unspoken except for one lyrical reference to Ferguson in the credits, we have a hidden set of deaths and abuse that nobody wants to look at.
There’s no modern-day analog to Martin Luther King, or even Malcolm X, and I don’t think that’s the fault of the black community.  Today is a day of fractures; there’s a thousand media outlets, everyone can have a blog, everyone’s on Twitter, everyone has their own choice.  I’m not sure we can have a great uniting figure any more.
When you hear the words of King, slow as syrup, each word thought through precisely, man.  You wish a little that we were back in the days when one man could be lifted to such heights.  Because what he said, and did, to focus the movement, to keep it on track, still resonates today.
Go see Selma.  It’s so worth it.

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