Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Stephen James, Tim Roth
UK Release Date: 6th February 2015
A powerful civil rights drama as opposed to a traditional biopic, Selma does not conform to many of the tropes or cliches typically associated with films about iconic, historical figures. Rather than attempting to chronicle Martin Luther King Jnr’s entire legacy, Ava DuVernay chooses to tighten the lens on a period of his life that is less widely known, especially to UK cinema audiences. The main plot is centred around the 1965 marches led by King’s “Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (SCLC) in Alabama, where voter registration is deliberately biased against the black community. They plan to practise non-violent civil disobedience in the city of Selma, intending to elicit a violent police response in front of the national media in order to aid public pressure for change.
From the first glimpse of King preparing to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in Selma’s opening scene, we are presented with a uniquely humanised picture of the man himself – struggling to adjust his ascot and fretting over the impression that the fancy tie may give to his activist brothers back in the USA. Although never undermining the important and brave work that he undertook, DuVernay avoids overly deifying King and this realistic portrait allows a much more powerful connection to the character than would otherwise be possible.
In the same way that DuVernay does not shy away from showing King’s flaws, she is also not afraid of presenting the fierce and often violent racism that was present at the time. Scenes of marches being broken apart by baton-wielding police charges are intense and yet retain a sense of uncomfortable calmness. Coupled with the evident disdain from some local white residents, the atmosphere of the film enforces the unpleasant message that these events occurred a mere half century ago.
While the marching segments are visually forceful, King’s speeches are formidable in their own right. David Oweloyo’s portrayal of King is superb, and it is very easy to forget that you’re not watching the man himself. His astounding power of oration aside, Oweloyo’s performance is key to the film’s depiction of King as a rounded human being, showcasing both his passion and his imperfections.
With Selma’s impressive cast, it is difficult to single out performances from the dynamic range on offer. Both Tom Wilkinson (President Johnson) and Tim Roth (Alabama’s Governor Wallace) are very strong, representing the differing political opposition to King’s movement. Stephen James plays the leader of the local student activist group with outstanding conviction, and Carmen Ejogo is sublime as Dr King’s wife, Coretta. Appearances from Cuba Gooding and Martin Sheen are well acted, however seem distracting due to their short screen time. Similarly, while Nigel Thatch is strikingly believable as Malcolm X, his role is also disappointingly small.
Apart from one or two scenes that seem slightly unnecessary, Selma is gripping and generally well-paced, and there are very few bloated scenes in the 127 minute run time. However, this tightness appears to come at the cost of only allowing minimal development for much of the cast, as very few side characters are given a real chance to actually grow on-screen.
Nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, Selma is a remarkable insight into a troubling period of recent American history. DuVernay’s direction has created a compelling drama that is aesthetically gorgeous and led by a magnificent performance from Oyelowo that is more than deserving of an unreceived Oscar nomination. Selma manages to provide a window into the life of Martin Luther King Jnr that profoundly reflects his larger philosophy, and the legacy of a 20th century icon.
* * * *
4 / 5 stars
Written by James Excell