Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson
Martin Luther King’s dream always sounded so simple. All he wished for was that one day his children would live in a country where they were not judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. Throughout his life King fought hard to make that fantasy a reality. And yet what haunts you once the lights come up at the end of this timely and extraordinary film, is the realisation that this battle is far from over.
That Selma has failed to garner the support it deserves from the Awards voters is no more than the tip of the iceberg, but no less infuriating. It is a film of fine pedigree, backed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and Jeremy Kleiner. It’s directed with great poise by Ava DuVernay, and it’s helmed almost effortlessly by David Oyelowo, whose astonishing central performance may well turn out to be the best piece of acting you’ll see on the big screen this year.
Selma’s snubbing is shameful, and will be remembered by many for a long time to come. But the emphasis should actually rest upon the film’s countless achievements. Unlike last year’s Oscar baiting biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, DuVernay’s film is not a complicated chronicle of King’s entire life. It is instead a mature and magnificent memoir, which documents one of the greatest advances he achieved during his lifetime.
We first meet Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo) in the prime of his campaign for Civil Rights, having just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Over in America however, things were not quite so calm. African Americans across the Nation struggled to be recognized as voters because of various discriminatory state practices. And after a meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) failed to acquire the support he needed, King headed to Selma in Alabama, where he planned a peaceful marching demonstration that would eventually culminate with Johnson signing the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lee Daniels, who directed The Butler, was originally signed on to make Selma. And if he had, judging by his past and his planned cast (Liam Neeson as Johnson, Hugh Jackman as Sheriff Jim Clark, Robert De Niro as George Wallace), it would doubtless have been a sickly and sentimentally showy affair. In DuVernay’s hands though, the results are far more nuanced and natural.
Crucially, she never stoops to simply idolising her subject, even if she does consistently frame him from a low angle. King is a man with flaws, battling against great odds to win a war through admirably peaceful means. And in the lead role, David Oyelowo offers a performance that masterfully embodies this complex character.
From the moment he appears on the screen, you are rooted to your seat in complete awe of Oyelowo’s astounding, awards-worthy turn. It’s a fully rounded manifestation, jaw-droppingly uncanny in appearance and intricately realised. With supreme skill, Oyelowo crafts a truly inspirational figure with significantly relatable faults. He effervesces the innate determination of a man who does not seek to achieve something he wants, but rather something that’s his democratic right. His presence is righteously rousing, bringing to mind the strength and fortitude of other screen icons that fought against racial hostility, most notably Sidney Poitier’s courageous cop Mr. Tibbs from Norman Jewison’s In The Heat Of The Night.
King’s quest comes with a heavy personal price though, and poignantly observed scenes movingly show the strain King’s mission had on his relationship with wife Coretta (a strong and spirited Carmen Ejogo) and his young children. Paul Webb’s succinctly scribed script ensures that muted moments like this pepper the film throughout, with all those like Coretta, who played a part in the story, focused upon in turn and fleshed out as the events continue to unfold.
Tom Wilkinson is commanding as Johnson, a President happy to make plans and promises but who rarely puts them into action. Electricity crackles whenever he and King share a scene, with sparks flying as the battle between the politician and protestor becomes more heated as the film progresses. Tim Roth meanwhile, slithers like a slippery, hissable serpent throughout as the Alabama Governor George Wallace, the man who instigated much of the pain and bloodshed felt by King and his supporters.
DuVernay puts the whole film together superbly. Some creative blemishes, such as the use of distracting expositional subtitles typed across the screen as if they were duplicated from an FBI dossier feel redundant. However, the melodic Motown beats that features on the soundtrack perfectly personify the 60s setting.
It is the harsh and harrowing reflections of violence that will linger particularly long in the memory. These are scenes that are staggeringly brutal in nature and suspenseful in manner. But notably, they are never visually gratuitous. DuVernay chooses rather to craft a sharp atmosphere of unbridled chaos and unrelenting threat, akin to that of a warzone.
The force used on the unarmed demonstrators is raw and ruthless to watch, and deeply distressing to witness. But what plagues your thoughts once the film finishes is the terrible truth that such scenes of abject brutality are still rife within our society today. What soon starts to play over and over in your head are the scenes of unrest we saw in Ferguson, Missouri last year, and with them the agonizing realisation that we’re not much closer to racial equality now than we were back in 1965. King fought bravely to make his dream a reality, and yet even now, 50 years on, it still feels like nothing but a fantasy.