Ryan: We’ve discussed what makes adaptations work—in particular, the value of capturing the spirit of an adaptation’s source material instead of being slavishly faithful. It requires a deft touch and an innate understanding of the original work.
With a film like Selma, it’s an even riskier proposition because Selma is based on historical events that happened recently enough that a segment of the audience have experienced them in one fashion or another. As such, accuracy becomes an even greater concern.
Selma‘s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as an antagonist by way of political pragmatism to the civil rights movement has its filmmakers under fire. If this were a movie about LBJ, this embellishment would carry more weight. But even with historical fiction, the same rules that govern all adaptations ultimately apply. Director Ana DuVernay isn’t making a documentary, after all. Selma is meant to capture a point in our history where African Americans were, in the course of asserting their rights under the law, beset upon on all sides by people who wanted to see them brought low as a people. To that end, it’s not a deal-breaker that LBJ is portrayed as part of that push-back for drama’s sake.
It’s also an intimate reflection on Martin Luther King Jr. himself. DuVernay, a relatively inexperienced film director, displays a great aptitude for understanding which moments to punch up for maximum impact, and which to allow to quietly unfold on their own. More impressive still is the fact that the soaring, searing speeches King gives in the movie are all synthesized by DuVernay herself; King’s actual speeches were licensed to another movie studio in 2009, to be used in another film yet to begin production.
As Dr. King, David Oyelowo crafts a performance that’s immediately recognizable, but doesn’t feel like a stock impersonation. He takes a figure who many only know on a superficial level and gives him immense depth and humanity, touching on passion for his cause, his concerns for its future, his ability to inspire those around him and his own fallibility. That Oyelowo accomplishes this without unnecessary flourish is a testament to his great skill. His omission from the list of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Actor is hugely disappointing (but also not at all his fault—read this excellent piece by Mark Harris for more).
Were you as impressed by Selma as I was? And what did you think of Tom Wilkinson’s performance? I’ve seen it lauded here and there, but I wasn’t a fan.
Rebecca: Selma is a solid addition to what has been heralded “the year of biopics.” Is it perfect? No. But neither is The Imitation Game, another Oscar-nominated biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer scientist who broke the Nazi’s Enigma Code during World War II, and in so doing, saved millions of lives. I bring The Imitation Game up because that film garnered Cumberbatch a nomination that could have/should have gone to Oyelowo (Cumberbatch has long paid his bills playing a socially awkward, genius Brit). For that matter, Game’s Oscar-nominated, straight-forward direction by Morten Tydlum can’t compare to the excellent work by DuVernay, whose controlled direction in this, her first major film, has been compared to that of a veteran Spielberg.
Selma throws the tiresome birth-to-death biopic approach out the window in favor of capturing a seminal three-month period in King’s life. The film grounds King while exploring his impact as as a political and, equally important, spiritual leader during a time of intense strife. And though there are a few moments when Oyelowo’s American accent bothered me, his performance as King is both compelling and restrained—in one scene, he describes at the pulpit the importance of sacrifice, of dying for what is right, and thanks to the centered integrity of his performance, his speech is deeply moving even if its message isn’t revolutionary (and even if the words technically come from DuVernay, not King, as you mentioned).
It’s true that Selma fudges the timeline and some of the exchanges between King and LBJ. Still, the well-documented contradictions of LBJ’s character are there, like them or not—LBJ was ruthless and pragmatic, could be on the phone with King one minute and having tea with a racist segregationist the next. Shocking for a politician, I know.
By taking LBJ’s stance on civil rights, which likely evolved over years, and compounding some of that evolution into the three months during which the movie is set, one could argue the “character” of LBJ gets more of an arc in the film. Sure, there are some interactions between King and LBJ that are needlessly melodramatic (perhaps because of Wilkinson’s overacting?), but in general, we’re in agreement: the hype about accuracy seems overblown, at least considering the many historical liberties taken in almost all biopics.
Besides, the debate about the merits of embellishment in narrative nonfiction, or based-on-a-true-story adaptations, encompasses far more art than just this one film. While Selma should not get picked on here, coming from a journalism background, I do tend to gravitate toward the take-the-least-amount-of-creative-license-possible-while-getting-at-a-deeper-truth approach, as narrative has a way of embedding impressions about real events and people into the collective psyche of a public unlikely to delve into their history books (or, let’s face it, Wikipedia) after every trip to the cineplex.
Nonetheless, while these questions about responsible historical storytelling should be litigated in the culture at large, it’s a shame that Selma, an impressive film that offers much more than its few contentious LBJ scenes, had to become the issue’s poster child.