Burdened with the albatross of controversy amidst its myriad awards snubs, Ava DuVernay’s Selma arrives under the weight of expectation, and delivers. A stirring portrait of a key moment in civil rights history, Selma is a powerfully acted, emotionally involving piece of prestige cinema, arriving at a time in which its themes of oppression and peaceful resistance could not make it more relevant to current race relations in Obama’s America.”
Honing on a crucial moment in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo in a career-making performance) and for the civil rights movement as a whole, Selma picks up a year after the publication of the 1964 Civil Rights act, yet finds discrimination and racial hatred still a daily endurance of most African Americans in the South, nigh on impossible for them to practice their right to vote. Disillusioned by the blasé attitude of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King and the SCLC venture to Selma, Alabama, which becomes their battle ground in the fight for voting equality. In the face of ensuing hardship and tragedy, it is proposed that the protesters stage a 50km march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, provoking the ire of bigoted state Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and resulting in a period of severe unrest as the protesters attempt to overcome life-threatening adversity. Meanwhile, King’s relationship with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) becomes progressively strained, aggressive external forces aiming to drive a wedge between them.
Selma succeeds largely through its director’s ability to place us right in the heart of a key moment in American history, achieved through DuVernay’s keen focus on character and the undying struggle for progress. There’s a warmth to the film’s intimate, less plot-driven moments that reminds us that their noble cause aside, the activists were real people, an impromptu lunch scene providing respite from the film’s pervasive seriousness. Indeed, Selma is very much a prestige picture, but DuVernay directs with an edge that separates it from its peers, Bradford Young’s often hand-held, often beautiful cinematography lending a modern sensibility to proceedings.
Despite the optimism at its core, there’s a sombre sensibility that runs through much of Selma, DuVernay’s excellent direction lending a palpable weight to the film’s moments of darkness. The brutality experienced by activists at the hands of the authorities and racist gangs is never shied away from, its impact rendered most affecting through the screenplay’s measured balance of the personal – the painfully familiar sight of a young activist murdered in full view of his family – and the expansive. In a stand-out sequence, with King sidelined by family issues, John Lewis (Stephan James) and and Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) lead the protesters in their first attempt to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Its build up is a masterclass in slow-building tension, Young’s frenzied camera work placing us at the heart of the tear gas and trauma, as the unarmed, fleeing protesters brutalised by the armed forces. With inventive use of voice-over provided via a journalist’s distressed telephone report, the horrific significance of the event is fully realised, its devastating impact cutting right to the bone. Much of the power stems from the unfortunate parallels between race relations in 1965 with those in 2015, compounded by the end-credits placement of John Legend and Common’s ‘Glory’, which directly references the Ferguson riots.
Social commentary aside, Selma‘s greatness lies in its ability to make real the figures at the heart of the drama. It’s a film littered with strong turns from its ensemble, peripheral characters such as James’ John Lewis and Andre Holland’s Andrew Young providing a rounded look at the activists’ personal experiences, while Wilkinson’s raspy turn as LBJ provides the soon to be immortal line, ‘Are you trying to shit me, George Wallace?’. Yet its MLK himself that rightly dominates Selma‘s two hours, and Oyelowo is transcendent in one of the strongest screen performances seen in some time. Mastering the man’s southern timbre and particular gait, Oyelowo disappears into the role, the British actor is afforded many a powerful showcase through his rousing speeches whilst instilling a sense of nervous uncertainty into his quieter scenes. While one would be pressed to describe DuVernay’s film as a warts-and-all portrait of MLK, our key to the character is in his imperfections, depicted most notably here through his strained marriage. King’s infidelities are directly addressed, his helplessness in the face of Coretta’s confrontation reminding us that despite his achievements, King was a far from ideal husband. In this sense, Oyelowo’s greatest achievement is rendering King a human, relatable figure rather than a Christ-like leader. His absence from this year’s Oscar race is baffling for sure, but this will surely not be the last time he’s in the conversation.
So ignore those awards snubs. Selma is that rare beast, an essential biopic that, whilst looking back at a significant moment in civil rights movement, has its feet planted firmly in the present. Stirring and emotionally involving, it’s a must see for its central performance alone.