Rating: 8.5 out of 10
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
In 1965, segregation has been abolished in the United States but many of the country’s black citizens in the South had still not being given a fair chance to vote, so civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) travels down to Selma, Alabama to arrange a march in order to get the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) so he’ll step in and make the appropriate changes.
Selma isn’t the first movie about the Civil Rights movement nor will it be the last, but it’s probably one of the first movies in recent memory that captures the moments leading up to one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest victories without feeling preachy or falling into the usual biopic traps.
Maybe that’s because Selma is more of a documentation of a specific part of American history as it follows Dr. King (as played by David Oyelowo) and his advisors as they travel down to Selma to try to make a difference. By this time, King already has the attention of President Lyndon Johnson who has supported the Civil Rights movement but has other things on his plate and is in no hurry to grant blacks the right to vote. When King and his crew arrive in Selma, they realize that not all of the locals are ready to blindly follow him either, maybe because they’re already familiar with the tactics used by the local authorities, something we see first-hand as a group of locals are brutalized by the police during a peaceful protest.
Selma doesn’t follow a typical historic film narrative, instead allowing the viewer to be a fly on the wall as it shows King and his closest advisors in different situations leading up to the famous march. It helps to create the feeling as if you’re watching real people rather than a group of actors reciting lines from a script. Even with that conceit, the first thirty or forty minutes moves relatively slow, since there are so many characters introduced with so much focus on the dialogue and the planning stages and discussions that go along with it. It’s one of the many things that makes it reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in its approach to history.
The film gives equal time to Tom Wilkinson’s President Johnson and how the events in Selma are being observed from Washington. In one scene, we see him meeting with FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), who offers to keep an eye on King’s movements. At this time, the government feels it’s easier to hold King back by monitoring (and disrupting) his home life rather than working with him, which doesn’t seem to have changed. Tim Roth elicits such contempt as Alabama Governor George Wallace, a politician so despicable and so on the wrong side of history that it creates a suitable villain for the times.
Pulling these disparate elements into a cohesive story is an impressive achievement by director Ava DuVernay, whose previous films were very small character dramas without nearly as many moving pieces. You can tell that each and every actor, no matter how big or small their role, is giving DuVernay their all, and none more than Oyelowo himself. Having been aware of his work for years, I honestly had no idea he had the ability to create such a presence for himself on screen. This begins with the way the British actor perfectly captures the tone and rhythm of King’s voice not only when he’s giving one of his famous speeches but also in calmer times. It’s a note-perfect portrayal of Dr. King that’s even more striking during his moments at home in Atlanta with his wife Coretta, an equally stirring performance by Carmen Ejogo, particularly when she learns about affairs he’s been having while on the road.
As much as the focus is rightfully put on King, there are many other key characters in this story, each of them having a moment, including a brief appearance by Malcolm X, effortlessly introduced without making a huge deal about it. Oprah Winfrey makes a brief appearance as one woman whose poor treatment while trying to register to vote stirs the locals to action, but compared to others, it’s a fairly insignificant role that feels like it could have been played just as well by plenty of other actors.
Where the film really blows up is when the people of Selma are ready to march, facing more opposition from the local police, rooted on by local bigots and militant types. It leads to one of the film’s most harrowing moments as we see old women being tear-gassed and beaten by police on horses. Watching this horrible bit of history recreated really pulls together all the emotions that have been building throughout the film, building to a pivotal climax to the final act.
The Bottom Line:
An amazing achievement by DuVernay and her cast in capturing a milestone in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights movement, and easily one of the most important and relevant films of the year. It’s impossible to watch it without drawing immediate parallels to what’s going on in the world today.
Selma is now playing in select cities and will expand nationwide on Friday, January 9, 2015.