I went with a friend to see “Selma” today. It is only showing in a few theaters and in most of those on one screen a couple of times a day. It had a working Budget of $20 million and has made $32.4 million at the box office. That is bad. Really bad. We were the only two there. We know the manager well and afterwards we asked him how the crowds had been. His answer: “Poor to start off with….and they they got worse.”
Selma is a historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay. It is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams,and Martin Luther King,Jr. of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC. The film stars British actors David Oyelowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, and American rapper and actor Common as James Bevel.
Selma received nearly universal acclaim from film critics. Praise has gone particularly to the film’s acting,cinematography,and screenplay. On Rotten Tomatoes the film currently holds a rating of 99%,based on 150 reviews,with an average rating of 8.7/10. The site’s critical consensus reads,”Fueled by a gripping performance from David Oyelowo,Selma draws inspiration and dramatic power from the life and death of Martin Luther King,Jr. — but doesn’t ignore how far we remain from the ideals his work embodied.” On Metacritic the film has a score of 89 out of 100,based on 43 critics,indicating “universal acclaim”
It got tons of publicity. So where are the crowds? Well, I live in very conservative Missouri in an area where there are few blacks but “12 Years a Slave” did rather well here. It was made for $22 million and made $188 million.
Was the film over-rated? Maybe. I thought it was good but not great. I gave it a 3.5 out of 5. Why? While there were some powerful moments, overall the film seem slow. While there were compelling characters, overall I found it hard to care for the central characters as much as I cared for some with much smaller parts. While there were riveting scenes, there was a lot of lag time in the narrative. It did not grab me and it did not take me for a roller coaster ride.
And maybe that is why the film is so good. I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a stupid high school kid and as a little less stupid college kid. As an adult I worked in the inner city for a number of years. Looking back I recall lots of down time waiting for things to start, lots of confusion about what we doing and how it would help, lots of experience with leaders who were very, very human.
The most riveting moment in “Selma” fizzles out because that is what really happened. King is dynamic and waffling. King is a moral leader in matters of race and poverty but a failed husband. King seems supremely confident but clearly has deeply seated doubts.
King is neither Superman or SuperVillain. He is a great man leading a movement that is barely holding together. The film captures all of that.
But it is not a “WOW” experience. It is a “Hmmmmm” experience.
Let me add one other thought: The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement is a Mixed One. I think that many would say that King’s movement has left a very mixed legacy behind it. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics et. al. look upon it as noble but somehow disappointing. Part of this comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding, but part of it comes from the lived experience that many have. Finally, non-violence, philosophical dialogue, and often expressed angst do not make for captivating film.
“American Sniper” is a different story. With a budget of $58.8 million, it has made $154.6 million in far less time in the theaters. There is no moral ambiguity in that film. There is no doubt about who is good and who is evil. It lets American audiences vicariously target the “enemy” “radical, jihadist muslims.” I understand this as well.