Ava DuVernay, 2014
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) sets his sight on the next obstacle to Black rights: unfair voting legislation that keeps Black people from being able to register in the extremely racist South of America. He and his organisation head to Selma, Alabama, a town where the Black people are fed up with their mistreatment and are ready to protest. The violent, angry sheriff is determined to shut down any and all peaceful protests with force, and he’s supported by the incredibly racist Alabama senator George Wallace (Tim Roth). It isn’t long before a young Black man is murdered by white law enforcement, which increases the pressure on President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to change the law. In addition to opposition from the government and police, Martin is struggling on the home front. His wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is overwhelmed by constant threats by their family and the discovery that Martin has been cheating on her. Surrounded and supported by a number of brave, rebellious people, Martin presses on with the protests, organising a non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery and ensuring that the country stands up and pays attention.
Filled with strong performances and bristling with righteous energy, Selma is a worthy tribute to a great man. Without dismissing Martin Luther King Jr’s faults, Ava DuVernay nonetheless crafts a film that effectively shows just how much of a galvanising figure he was. David Oyelowo is incredible in the role, bringing King’s speeches to life with a pitch-perfect vocal impersonation, but also infusing him with humanity and moments of uncertainty. It’s a performance, not an impression. The movie also acknowledges the incredible team that King had supporting him, the bravery of the protesters, the dissent within the black community, and the complexities of his relationship with Lyndon Johnson, all without losing sight of its main message. It’s a well-balanced juggling act, and the decision to focus only on this moment in time gives us an excellent perception of King as a person. There’s a lot of great performances in the supporting cast, too. (As a side note: it amuses me that every single actor’s name I mentioned above belongs to a Brit.) The voices alone are just amazing, and every actor really stepped up to the standard Oyelowo was setting. I think Oprah Winfrey might have had the least impressive performance, to be honest; everybody else was bringing their A game. It’s always great to see Tessa Thompson, too. I really want to see Dear White People.
Having said all that, the movie has its flaws. It has some trouble maintaining tension, with each blistering protest scene or confrontation being followed up with a quiet night time scene of King having a conversation, interspersed with a much too high number of speeches. While it’s true that King was a great orator and Oyelowo delivers each word with clarity and passion, I’m not sure it was entirely necessary to play out four or five of his speeches in full. The movie is too wordy; I often thought it could almost be a radio play. Conversations, speeches, and expository dialogue frequently played over long, dimly shot scenes of King walking around, leading me to lose concentration completely. It’s a shame, because the movie was actually quite prettily shot, with some bold choices that enhanced its aesthetic. Watching the protest scenes, it was clear that DuVernay had the ability to shoot a really exciting, tense scene, but I think the sense of timing was off. Beats last too long, scenes overstay their welcome, and I’m sure the script had way too many paragraphs of uninterrupted dialogue. Fortunately, the film’s strengths are enough to overcome these problems, because when it’s good, it’s excellent. I know now why it’s not nominated for an Oscar, though. This film is a call to action, an indictment of the way things are now, and a film that calls out racist bullshit for what it is. It’s scary to a conservative institution like the Oscars. I’m willing to bet it’s scary to a lot of people in power in America, even now. And that’s exactly why everyone should see it.
Selma on IMDb