Selma, the Martin Luther King Jr biopic, was the last of this years’ Oscar Best Picture nominees to cross off my list. It’s not that I have no interest in the American civil rights movement — it’s just that it seemed like one of those slow, solemn films that you need to be in the right mood to see.
And I was right. Selma is indeed one of those slow, solemn films. But I happened to be in the right mood and I really enjoyed it. With an explosive performance by David Oyelowo (previously best known to me as the dickhead in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as King and a cinematic yet realistic approach by director Ava DuVernay, Selma is goosebump-inducing drama.
Set in 1964, just as King accepts his Nobel Peace Prize, the film zones in on the Alabama town of Selma, where racial inequality and bigotry still reign supreme despite the end of segregation. King travels to Selma and begins calling for US president Lyndon Johnson to introduce federal legislation to allow blacks to vote unencumbered. Those who know their history will be able to tell you that their efforts culminate in the historic Selma to Montgomery marches that eventually gets King what he wants.
What makes Selma a great film is that it gives audiences an important history lesson filled with fine details, but never comes across as preachy or condescending. Admittedly slow and controlled, it is probably not a film I would have enjoyed when I was younger, especially as it presumes some knowledge of historical events and people. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve been able to appreciate the nuances of the craft and how less is almost always more in terms of generating a genuine emotional response.
Kudos to DuVernay’s composed direction, never rushing and always knowing when to focus on the most pivotal moments with care and subtlety. I know the film must have its fair share of historical inaccuracies, but DuVernay’s approach and the great acting almost made me feel like I was watching a documentary, with the more personal scenes being what would have transpired had there been cameras following them around at all times.
I was very surprised that although the film received a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Oyelowo was snubbed for Best Actor. It doesn’t make much sense, to be honest, considering that the film is only what it is because of his remarkable performance. I knew he was going to be good channelling King’s charisma during public speeches, but I was actually more impressed with him during the quieter moments, especially the scenes with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). With all but Michael Keaton receiving nominations for playing real-life characters this year, it’s a head scratcher why Oyelowo missed out.
The rest of the cast was also exceptionally good, and I had no idea there was so many big names involved. The reliable Tom Wilkinson is Lyndon Johnson, who was surprisingly portrayed as a semi-villain unwilling to institute change, while Tim Roth brings out the douchebaggery in Alabama governor George Wallace. Other names you might recognise include Common, Cuba Gooding Jr, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Stephen Root and Martin Sheen. Everyone knew their place, even Oprah, who does her best to stay inconspicuous as civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper but is still a bit of a distraction because, well, she’s freaking Oprah!
I do wish the film tackled King’s “alleged” infidelities with more balls — it was done rather respectfully with just one scene — though I suppose the intention was to show that he was a flawed preacher as opposed to exposing him as sex addict or moral hypocrite. It would have been good too if the “bad guys” like Wallace and sheriff Jim Clark were given more opportunities to be multi-layered characters than just standard villains. Nonetheless, Selma is one of the better civil rights films I’ve seen and in my opinion it bests other recent efforts such as fellow Best Picture nominee Lincoln and The Butler (which incidentally also features Oprah).
4 stars out of 5
PS: One of the most amazing things I discovered about this film is that none of King’s original speeches could be used in the film for copyright reasons, meaning DuVernay had to rewrite all of them. Apparently, King’s estate had licensed them to DreamWorks and Warner Brothers for an untitled project by Stephen Spielberg. It is also interesting that Lee Daniels had a choice between The Butler and Selma and went with the former, thereby opening up the opportunity for DuVernay.