REVIEW: “Selma”


The process to bring “Selma” to the big screen began in 2008. Since then “Selma” has had director changes, producer changes, cast changes, and script rewrites. But now it has finally hit theaters with director Ava DuVernay at the helm. As expected the film has generated a lot of buzz, critical acclaim, and its share of controversy. Going into the film I was excited to see how well the story would be told. I was also cautious and concerned about how the historical liberties I’ve been reading about would effect the film’s impact.

“Selma” doesn’t set out to be a comprehensive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead it focuses on the events surrounding the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I appreciated the film’s disregard for the standard biopic blueprint. MLK’s entire life isn’t crammed into one story. This movie has a very specific story to tell, yet it allows us to glean much about this influential figure. We learn of his motivations, his faults, his fears, and his uncertainties all through observation. We also learn of his bravery, his sacrifice, and his determination.


This chronicle of the Selma march starts with Martin Luther King Jr’s (David Oyelowo) desire to secure true and unhindered voting rights for black Americans. We see him going to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and urging him to give immediate attention to the matter. We see the festering racial tensions in the south particularly in and around the town of Selma, Alabama. We see King visiting Selma with his fellow SCLC members. He speaks in churches and spreads the message of change through peace and offers encouragement to the black community. We also see the violent backlash against the peaceful protests – something that weighs heavily on Dr. King’s heart.

“Selma” has the big showcase scenes that you would expect, but DuVernay also gives us the smaller more intimate moments. These personal strokes paint a much more detailed portrait of King. There’s a fun scene where he and his SCLC buddies arrive at a female friend’s house for breakfast. It’s a great scene filled with playful banter and jests. There is also a piercing scene between King and his wife Coretta (exquisitely played by Carmen Ejogo). It’s a low-key but intense family moment that DuVernay films with subtle but brutal honesty. We get a number of these touches which are much more than just emotional gimmickry.


And you can’t have a discussion about “Selma” without talking about the performance of David Oyelowo. The British actor loses himself in the role of Dr. King. He is a great match in terms of physical appearance, but he gives us so much more. I was blown away by the steadiness of his voice and his near perfect accent. He also conveys the passion and charisma that I imagine from Dr. King. We see this most in his speeches/sermons at a church in Selma. Oyelowo’s performance is graceful, committed, and nuanced.

“Selma” has so many important things to say and it hits head-on the disgraceful racism that was prevalent at the time. It’s a film that could be taken as an important historical reflection. Unfortunately it loses a portion of its credibility due its historical liberties. I generally stay away from controversies surrounding historical inaccuracies, but for me “Selma” genuinely suffers due to decisions made by DuVernay and writer Paul Webb. It has nothing to do with the racism and violence shown in Selma. All of that was shown with such power and potency. Instead it’s the decision to cast Lyndon B. Johnson as an antagonist, something that simply wasn’t true.

History has shown that Johnson had King had disagreements. But they also had a deep respect and worked together to accomplish the shared goal of equality. Even some close to King have come out to defend Johnson from the film’s characterization. The movie shows Johnson as an obstructionist who grows more and more annoyed with King’s efforts towards equal voting rights. But it doesn’t stop there. The film stops just short of calling Johnson a racist. It also shows Johnson callously using the FBI to hurt King and his family. Many have said this never happened and it depicts Johnson as cold and pernicious. And when he does finally put voting rights legislation forward, the film shows him to be motivated more by his legacy than doing what’s right.


But why did this hurt the film for me? Historical inaccuracies happen all the time in biography movies. For me it hurts the film because it strips it of a potentially strong and relevant message. I mean which would have more impact and resonance, the movie’s characterization of an obstructive and self-serving sitting white President or the true depiction of a white and black man standing side-by-side working towards true and meaningful change? The power and relevance of that message in the current climate is undeniable. Why did DuVernay choose the direction she did? Some of her comments about the making of the film may shed light on her motivations. Regardless it is a frustrating decision that seems unnecessary.

Sadly the “controversy” surrounding “Selma” isn’t without some merit. A lot of people, particularly younger viewers, may look at the film and take it entirely as historical fact. While that may not be completely true, the majority of the movie serves as a forceful and unflinching reminder of the faith and courage shown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the persecuted black community of that day. The film forces us to experience the undeserved attitudes of hatred commonly thrown at black Americans at the time. It also raises our spirits by showing the determination of a brave community unwilling to sit by and have their rights trampled. The true story of Selma, Alabama has an inspirational power. “Selma” the movie also has that power except when it wanders off into its own revisionist world.


REVIEW: “The Purge: Anarchy”


The first “Purge” movie was a strange mixture of intriguing ideas and wasted potential. It was built upon an absurd concept, but one that could have been explored in an assortment of compelling ways. Instead it turned into a preposterous and heavy-handed mess. Now we have a sequel titled “The Purge: Anarchy” and it offers an interesting contrast to the first film. It examines some of those provocative possibilities I wanted from the first movie. Unfortunately it also makes some of the same frustrating mistakes that may not completely undermine the film, but it does keep it from being as good as it could be.

One beneficial thing about the entire Purge series is that it doesn’t revolve around a specific character or group. This allows it to tell new stories and dive into new ideas. In “Anarchy” we are introduced to three personal storylines. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is a waitress who is struggling to support her teenaged daughter and terminally ill father. Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are a young couple on the verge of splitting up. Leo (Frank Grillo) is a man tormented by a past tragedy. He loads several weapons and heads out just as the Purge is about to begin. As you can guess, their lives intersect on the night of the Purge.

Film Title: The Purge: Anarchy

Now for those unfamiliar with the idea, the Purge is an annual nationwide event where all law enforcement, fire, and medical services are unavailable and all crime (including murder) becomes legal for a 12-hour period. The idea is that the Purge acts as a catharsis of sorts for the citizens of this new America. In reality it’s used as a means of government-sponsored selective population control implemented by the totalitarian New Founding Fathers. It weeds out the poor and more undesirable sections of the population making the world a better place for the rich and affluent.

The whole concept is still absurd, yet writer/director James DeMonaco does offer up some intriguing metaphors and biting social allegory. It’s probably not as audacious or provocative as it thinks it is, but it does ask a few good questions and it doesn’t mind pointing fingers at specific problems. When DeMonaco has these things under control they actually add a slightly unnerving and effective undercurrent to the film. Unfortunately he doesn’t maintain control and soon the movie commits the same annoying mistakes as the first film.

This is really frustrating because I was onboard with what DeMonaco was going for. But he doesn’t know when to dial it back and he soon begins to bludgeon you to death his class warfare message. Again, earlier in the film we see this used effectively. Later DeMonaco jettisons all subtlety and tact instead choosing to drown us with heavy-handed preaching on the evils of wealth and upper-crust white people. He also goes beyond the class messaging and into an arguably tasteless direction. There is a sequence where an underground Black Panther-like movement has a gunfight with the guards of a psycho rich group. Now perhaps its the current sociopolitical climate, but the scenes of white people and black people in a violent, bloody shoot-out divided strictly on racial lines came across as senseless and borderline insensitive (not to mention dumb).

The film’s complete lack of any craftiness or interesting nuance during these later scenes had me rolling my eyes and checking out. I don’t think filmmakers should be bound to subtlety when relaying a message or point, but they can wound their story and smother everything else in the film. You can also lose your grasp on telling a good story and that is the case with “The Purge: Anarchy”. The narrative suffers. The characters suffer. The effectiveness of the message suffers.


All of that is truly a shame. “The Purge: Anarchy” wasn’t a great film from the start, but it was surprisingly entertaining. Frank Grillo gives a really good performance and I found myself caring about him and the other characters. But whether it’s due to DeMonaco’s lack of self-control or a conceit he has regarding his central message, the movie flies off the rails and turns into a silly and potentially distasteful joke. Despite the movie’s blundering detour it does get back on track just in time to provide an unexpected satisfying ending.

“The Purge: Anarchy” had a small $9 million budget yet it pulled in over $110 million at the box office so you know another sequel is coming. Hopefully the next installment can capture what this film did well while avoiding the annoying flaws that this film embraced. There is potential here for a biting look at some relevant social and political issues. We see that in “Anarchy”. But it may take someone besides DeMonaco in the driver’s seat before we get it. As it stands “Anarchy” is much better than the first film. It’s just frustrating when you realize it could have been even better.