I muttered these words sarcastically to myself as I pulled into the cineplex parking lot in Jackson, Michigan last weekend. Self-righteousness bursts out of me sometimes, especially if I'm in the act of sticking to my guns. The two moviegoers I referred to above were fellow white guys with close-cropped hair, wearing jeans and t-shirts. Impulsively, I regarded them as walking Jeff Foxworthy redneck jokes. In truth, I did not know them. I had no right to judge them. Still, let's be real. If you had to guess which movie these two dudes were headed to last weekend, the best guess would not be Selma.
Late last year, perhaps when I joined the throngs watching Gone Girl, I saw a preview for Selma. The trailer was stirring. When actor David Oyelowo, speaking from the pulpit as Martin Luther King, cried out the word "use" in reference to white power, I remember my breath catching as I thought to myself, Wow, he has King's voice. Then the trailer erupted into contemporary hip hop music as white and black protesters faced off against segregation-enforcing law officers. This is an excellent movie trailer. See for yourself:
That was three months or more ago. When Selma opened to wide release two weekends ago, I had lost the urge to see it. I skipped that weekend. I almost skipped again this weekend. Why?
I suspect I was like those two guys I judged harshly in the parking lot. The movie I now itched to see was American Sniper. You'd think I, we Americans, might start losing interest in Navy Seal cinema, (Lone Survivor, 2013; Zero Dark Thirty, 2012). Yet after one weekend in wide release, American Sniper is on pace to easily eclipse those two films. It has already made almost four times as much as Selma according to IMDb.
How did American Sniper steal the proverbial thunder from my urge to see Selma? Oh that this was a mystery. My eagerness to see the war biopic did not stem solely, or even primarily, from a desire to honor veterans. As with Selma, I found the American Sniper trailer riveting. Moreover, I have always found fictional yet realistic battle sequences thrilling. On an even less dignified level, watching combat-fueled movies provides me a chance to fantasize about what I might be like in battle. Yes, fantasy is the correct term. I needed no special encouragement to go see American Sniper.
Still, I had promised myself I would show up for Selma. Though I was not in the mood to see it, partly out of a sense of obligation I headed to the theater. Keeping in mind Selma's being snubbed for acting and directing Oscar nominations, my self-righteousness kicked in.
As the movie proceeded on-screen, I mulled over my loss of eagerness from last Fall. For starters, I suspected Selma might end up being more of a preachy history lesson than a source of entertainment. Yet audiences embraced Lincoln in 2012, a sermonizing history-lesson of a flick. Clearly, sometimes we embrace the preaching. Seeing Lincoln did not feel like a chore to me, even though I did not fall in love with the film. Why was watching Selma feeling like a chore?
For one thing, the religiosity of Selma turned me off a bit. King's Christian-based movement made some sections of the movie feel like a Sunday School lesson. I'm an agnostic. Bible quoting doesn't attract me the way it did in my youthful churchgoing days. Nothing personal, just not my cup of...well, wait. When the white clergy traveled to Selma to stand alongside the black clergy, I was quite moved. I did not roll my eyes and think, oh great, more preachers. What does that say about me? About my preferences?
In my defense, I loved watching Oyelowo's King speak from the pulpit. As was the case with Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln, I relished watching this fantastic actor embody, not merely imitate, a historical figure. As the film progressed, I found myself connecting more and more, especially thanks to domestic scenes between King and his wife Coretta, played marvelously by Carmen Ejogo. Their emotional range, accentuated by sincere expression and poignant non-verbal cues, exuded dramatic power.
When the closing credits began to roll, I knew I had not fallen in love with Selma--not fully anyway. As with Lincoln, I felt it was an excellent movie but that it did not transcend other Oscar fare. Yet if it is at least as deserving as other Oscar nominees for direction and acting, why didn't Selma receive any nominations in those categories? How does this particular film, its artistic excellence so apparent, find itself largely passed by?
Perhaps the answer is demonstrated by an avid moviegoer like myself having to prod himself to attend Selma at all. Why did my early enthusiasm fail to carry me into the theater on opening weekend? I titled this blogpost with one key part of the maddening answer--perhaps not so much the skin color as the state of mind I struggle to transcend on any given trip to the cineplex. In any case, Selma deserves a bigger audience than it has gotten thus far. It may not sport the gritty action of so many beloved war epics, but it has an American heart equal to any of them which I have eagerly attended.