In Search of a Director

Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson

Review written by Robert D. Patrick

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fervent cogency was an unmovable force; he splintered all forms of bullheaded resistance in his toilsome path to equality. The Atlanta born pastor’s power was built around strategic diction – each word was crafted with ardor and articulation. Punctuation, delivery, and restraint were weapons in his bow quiver. Scholars, activists, and teachers have all spoken about his humanitarian efforts, ad nauseam, for a good reason. And so, with director Ava DuVernay’s visual aid, we get yet another academic look at a good man under the suffocating shadow of violent disparity.

DuVernay’s oeuvre is crosshatched with everything from Saturday Night Live episodes to lukewarm TV movies, giving her some varied experience behind the camera. But is it enough to recreate the sweat-flecked and incisor-flaring history of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement? It’s an undertaking that would have the builders of the pyramids overwhelmed. How do you channel the pride, despair, determination, and victory of so many important people when the last thing you directed was an episode of Scandal? Unlike Spike Jonze and Anton Corbijn, fellow directors who began in small markets, DuVernay doesn’t have a distinct stylistic fingerprint to elevate her material. Not that a story about MLK needs to be dotted with pastels and paper mache, but it shouldn’t have the energy of a 99 cent store battery, either. Like My Week With Marilyn or Me and Orson Welles, Selma feels like another history inspired vehicle in need of a driver.

Still, David Oyelowo bears the burden of channeling a monumental presence, and does so with amazing detail. How he wasn’t overcome with the source material is beyond me. From the quiet seething to the reflective and pained eyes, Oyelowo transcends an impression to an embodiment. The body language, stature, and sometimes laconic nature of King is electric. When the speeches are delivered, in all of their podium rattling avidity, you become wrapped up in the film. Sadly, when other actors appear on screen, the power outage happens. Tim Roth does little other than peddle his fingers together like a brooding super villain, and Tom Wilkinson sighs and barks. The worst issue with the casting is that Oprah shoehorns herself into the film, boxing out another actress who may have done better with less. The author, actor, impresario, journalist, foodie, magazine purveyor, talk show host, middling fashionista, car benefactress, omnipotent demigoddess, celestial night rider distracts audiences with her groan inducing turn in the film.

Selma needs a better score than its waning, tired orchestra provides. The direction is sedentary, and the dialogue, outside of the impassioned speeches, leaves something to be desired. Ultimately, just because a story or person is inherently interesting doesn’t mean the direction and screenplay will have the same tact and authority. You have to wonder if critics are rating with their emotions and not their heads. DuVernay bricked Selma, but the audience is too nice to put it in the stat sheet.

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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