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Selma: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

Selma (2014) movie poster Selma

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 / Running Time: 128 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Ava DuVernay / Writer: Paul Webb

Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr.), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andrι Holland (Andrew Young), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee White), Lorraine Toussaint (Amelia Boynton), Stephan James (John Lewis), Wendell Pierce (Rev. Hosea Williams), Common (James Bevel), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), LaKeith Lee Stanfield (Jimmie Lee Jackson), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Fred Gray), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover), Tim Roth (Governor George Wallace), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper), Colman Domingo (Ralph Abernathy), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Bayard Rustin), Stephen Root (Colonel Al Lingo), Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash), Omar Dorsey (James Orange), Henry G. Sanders (Cager Lee), Jeremy Strong (James Reeb), Trai Byers (James Forman), Corey Reynolds (Rev. C.T. Vivian), Niecy Nash (Richie Jean Jackson), Nigel Thatch (Malcolm X), Tara Ochs (Viola Liuzzo), Clay Chappell (Registrar), Stan Houston (Sheriff Jim Clark), Martin Sheen (Frank Minis Johnson - uncredited)

Buy Selma from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD • DVD • Instant Video

Martin Luther King Jr. is much too important a figure for anyone to have wondered if he'd someday get movie treatment. The real questions were when, how, and how often would King's story be told on film. King has been portrayed in films
and television over forty times, but he's yet to get a big biopic like fellow black civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. Selma marks King's first time being the lead of a major theatrical film, but as the title indicates, this is not a biopic in the traditional sense. It is a film about one critical, specific chapter in King's too short life of activism and calls for racial equality.

David Oyelowo, a British actor spotted in many major American films over the past four years (including three 2014 awards contenders), plays Dr. King. He might not be the spitting image physically, but hair, make-up, and clothes help him to bear plenty of resemblance to the influential southerner. More importantly, Oyelowo channels King's inspiring presence and articulate manner of speaking. You know you're not watching the real King, but you somehow forget that as you get swept up in his infectious and unwavering courage, resolve, and spirit.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) leads the historic civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama.

Written by middle-aged newcomer Paul Webb, Selma details efforts to get African-Americans the right to vote. By 1963, when the movie opens, they technically have that already. But actually getting to vote is more complicated than that. A woman (played by a briefly-seen Oprah Winfrey) tries registering, only to be asked to recite the preamble of the United States Constitution. After she does that, she's asked to provide the number of judges in the county. Amazingly, she does, but is then told to name them, which is, naturally, one high hurdle too many to clear.

Dr. King brings the issue to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who does not agree to make it a top priority for his administration. So King and his fellow civil rights leaders put their belief in nonviolent protest to use, scheduling a peaceful march in Selma, Alabama, a town that has recently seen four young black girls killed by a bomb set off in a Baptist church. King and company's march meets resistance. Under the leadership of the detestable J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), the FBI is monitoring the group's every move, a fact reiterated again and again with overlays of evidently official log entries. Marchers also face the wrath of aggressive local police officers and everyday racists. Even when advised not to, they persevere, determined to be heard.

Selma is the third feature film helmed by Ava DuVernay, a longtime publicist who made the leap to directing with the under-the-radar limited release dramas I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. The stakes are higher and the stage much bigger on Selma, a $20 million Paramount Pictures production that strategically opened on Christmas Day and expanded in advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend and Black History Month.

The depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) is one whose accuracy "Selma" critics questioned.

The narrow approach befits the movie. Someday, some filmmaker will tell King's story from birth to death.
DuVernay isn't interested in doing that, but instead presenting this historic period from different angles. The chief focus and primary target of our sympathies is King, whom one important scene prevents from complete canonization. King is heroic and the film doesn't much bother with shades of gray. But Oyelowo gives him humanity that stops the characterization short of superherodom.

There are lots of characters in Selma, many of them played by veteran actors you'll recognize. Unlike the last Winfrey movie that doubled as a civil rights lesson, most of these depicted figures are not ones you'll immediately recognize or ones that require obvious make-up and hairstyling work. A viewer at my unusually vocal theatrical screening loudly wondered "Is that Thurgood Marshall?" at one point. It wasn't, but you can't blame her for asking. Apart from a few (including a single-scene Malcolm X), these characters dramatized are not ones you'd know by name, appearance, or actions. That does make the movie a little harder to follow than you might like. At the same time, you're learning things.

Hopefully, these things are historically accurate. Around theatrical release, there was a minor clamor within the industry of people discrediting the film for its depiction of President Johnson and his policies. It's become something of an annual tradition for historical films competing for awards to be taken to task for inaccuracies. Such smear campaigns can be harmful; disputes over its depiction of torture did seem to sink Zero Dark Thirty right out of the 2012 Oscar race. For her part, DuVernay took to Twitter to defend Selma against negative accusations. Hers wasn't the only contender currently being subjected to scrutiny and fact-checking. Such debates only seemed to pave the path to glory for films that dabble in fiction, specifically biggest winner Birdman and presumed runner-up Boyhood.

In quality, Selma compares to those two frontrunners and is preferable to the season's more traditional biopics The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. It's a film whose content and approach seem to stand in the way of greatness. It's certainly polished, well-acted and moving enough. But there are too few flashes of candor and humanity, the most obvious one being a light scene where King and his entourage take comfort in a home-cooked meal.

Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) meets with Malcolm X by a church's stained glass windows. Tim Roth is among the Brits playing American, with his portrayal of Alabama's openly racist Governor George Wallace.

Selma was obviously expected to seriously compete for major awards, a task to which it was perfectly timed. It underperformed on that front, picking up only two nominations from the Academy Awards, for Best Picture and Best Original Song. It lost the former as it did the equivalent top honor at most non-race-related film awards. It won the latter, with the end credits tune "Glory" by John Legend and Common getting recognized in most ceremonies with an original song category, a consolation prize that meant keeping the beloved blockbuster The Lego Movie outside the winners' circle.

It may feel even crasser to discuss Selma in terms of box office, but the film also experienced some disappointment there, where multiplex moviegoers had to choose between this true drama and more traditional fare with dwarves, princesses, and an always vengeful Liam Neeson. Eventually finishing with a domestic gross of $52 million, Selma looks profitable on its reported $20 million budget, though the amount spent to market the film and campaign it for awards, neither to desired results, casts doubt over its commercial success. The North American returns are comparable to those of the biggest racial drama of 2013, 12 Years a Slave (also produced by Brad Pitt), but whereas that Best Picture-winning film grossed $131 million in foreign territories, Selma earned hardly anything abroad where theatrical exhibitions were mostly limited to Australia and parts of Europe. Selma also paled in comparison to its most likely benchmark, Winfrey-backed, Oyelowo-featured Lee Daniels' The Butler, which had been a breakout hit but award season non-factor a year earlier.

Selma is a film that few will find obvious faults in. There are simplifications and generalizations, but the history holds up and is handled with the respect and professionalism it deserves.

Selma: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French; BD movie-only: English for Hearing Impaired
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Selma may not be the flashiest piece of filmmaking, but it is as polished as it ought to be. The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 transfer upholds the filmic look of theatrical exhibition, complete with selective focus and some intentional color manipulation. The sharp, clean, and detailed picture is everything a new film coming to disc in 2015 should be. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack also does right by the film, capably distributing not quite instantly recognizable licensed music and a variety of dialogue and effects, including one moment sure to startle.

Director Ava DuVernay discusses her biggest film yet in two audio commentaries and two making-of featurettes. Oprah Winfrey's supporting character Annie Lee Cooper is among those whose witness stand testimony is extended in the Selma Blu-ray's deleted scenes section.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's bonus features begin with two audio commentaries. The first comes from director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo. Recorded last February, the track has the repeat collaborators talking about what's onscreen. Though respectful of the material, they fall short of reverence and manage to keep the track relatively light and listenable.

The second commentary teams DuVernay with two of her creative collaborators, director of photography Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick. Predictably, this track is more technical in nature, paying greater notice to lighting, camerawork, and cuts than the typical viewer will. As a result, it may be of greater interest to budding and aspiring filmmakers than those who simply like the film.
Nonetheless, a few notes of general interest emerge, like the fact that they were editing the film while the riots in Ferguson were going on.

Video extras, all of them HD, begin with "Road to Selma" (13:16), a featurette explaining how this movie came about. Talking heads are complemented by good behind-the-scenes footage.

"Recreating Selma" (26:29) goes into greater detail about the film's subject, cast, characters, locations, and intention to do justice to resonant history. Again, no shortage of interviews and B-roll shed light.

A deleted and extended scenes section consists of six long clips (29:43). There is nothing that would drastically alter the film in composition or content. The latter half of this long section preserves full witness stand testimonies which are described as cast improvisations.

Common reminds us he's not just an actor, but a rapper in the blue-lit music video for Oscar-winning original song "Glory." Historical newsreels provide glimpses of the real marches in Selma.

The music video for the Oscar-winning original song "Glory" (3:10) alternates between footage of John Legend and Common on a blue-lit set and clips from the film.

Under Historical we find two things. "Newsreels" (5:12) plays clips from two Universal newsreels covering the marches in Selma.

"Images" is a gallery showcasing ten photographs of the marches by Stephen Somerstein, most of them black and white.

"Selma Student Tickets: Donor Appreciation" (2:57) talks up the program implemented in major cities to give free tickets to students before a long scroll of names recognizes those who made it so.

"National Voting Rights Museum and Institute" (7:50) showcases the Selma facility that offers more information on the historic civil rights happenings that occurred there.

Finally, a Selma discussion guide gives over the course of seven scrollable/advanceable pages of text topics to address after viewing the film. One assumes they're most intended for a teacher, but any group showing the movie might have use for them.

Paramount typically withholds all bonus features from new movies' DVDs these days, but they make an exception for Selma, letting it keep the "Selma Student Tickets" and "National Voting Rights Museum." With space to spare, there were clearly more valuable extras that the DVD could have gotten instead of or in addition to those two shorts.

While the Blu-ray attempts (and struggles) to stream the timeliest trailers, the DVD opens with smoother ones that are actually on the disc. They promote Interstellar and The Gambler and are followed by an anti-tobacco ad. The Previews listing plays a Boyhood trailer before repeating the two auto-played ones and anti-tobacco spot.

The menu runs a montage while a long opening excerpt of "Glory" is looped.

The plain blue and gray discs share a slipcovered eco-friendly keepcase, joined only by an insert wielding Digital HD UltraViolet directions and code.

David Oyelowo gives a passionate lead performance as the charismatic preacher, speaker, and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Selma is an important story that is told well, if not altogether accurately. In light of the strong acting and directing and historical significance, I am not quite as moved by the film as I would expect to be, which perhaps can be attributed to entering without the greatest familiarity of the specifics and without the greatest passion for this particular struggle. I'm not sure how much of that is on me and how much is on the movie, but it does seem a little unfair to express disappointment that a fine film that long ought to have been made is only "very good" rather than great.

The Blu-ray of Paramount's combo pack delivers the high quality video/audio and ample and satisfying collection of extras you expect for such a production. While replay value may be limited, the film has enough to justify a purchase on the grounds of cultural significance and dramatic power.

Buy Selma from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Best Picture Nominees on Blu-ray: Boyhood • The Imitation Game • The Grand Budapest Hotel
New to Blu-ray: Hoop Dreams • The Immigrant • Inherent Vice • Accidental Love
David Oyelowo: Lee Daniels' The Butler • The Help • The Paperboy • Lincoln • A Most Violent Year • Interstellar
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom • Invictus • Perfect Harmony • Remember the Titans • Glory Road • Fruitvale Station

Related Giveaway:
Win the Selma: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack

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Reviewed May 5, 2015.



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