‘Selma’ Is Incredible, Inspiring, and Important (Movie Review)
Martin Luther King: The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.
I have been told I have something of a knack for impressions. Not particularly in how I look or even sound, but in finding the cadence in whatever humorous display I may be attempting to put on. David Oyelowo does not really look like Martin Luther King, Jr., but he does more than just get the cadence of the man down in Selma. Oyelowo is able to bring to life the presence and soul of Dr. King in a way that is completely worthwhile in a film that features him as both the man and the influential leader that inspired so many. That is no easy task for an actor or a film that would want to feature such a character in the dominant role, but Selma has found a way to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. into a film, without having to do the heavy-lifting of telling the man’s whole story and trying to truncate all of what he accomplished into a two-hour motion picture. Instead, fitted with a commanding lead performance, as well as several very strong supporting performances, and plenty of other great filmmaking-related aspects, Selma is a film that addresses a particular time in a wonderfully impressive way that is both cinematic and quite relevant to our current time.
Focusing in on the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, Paul Webb has written a script for Selma that can both center in on a pivotal time during the American Civil Rights Movement and function as a stirring character drama, based around real people. ‘Real people’ is a key aspect of this film, as Selma is not one featuring caricatures of the antagonistic characters on one side, while keeping every important figure standing up to intolerance depicted as a saint on the other. This is a film that tries very hard to keep things grounded and let us see the discussions, arguments, attitudes, and whatever else that goes on with all the various figures in this film in an effort to have us understand people for being people. With that in mind, the film feels a lot less like a history lesson being taught and more like a strong acting exercise, which happens to be centered on an important time in America.
I can keep focusing in on how much of a human-based drama this film is, because that really is what I enjoyed about it. Putting aside the aspects that get one riled up about treatment of individuals based on the color of their skin and the politics that come with conversations between Dr. King, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), among others, Selma has the structure of a drama about people talking, with some occasional, intense cinematic moments, all crafted and executed incredibly well by director Ava DuVernay. That is really what I am proud to see in a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. No doubt, anyone is in a difficult position when it comes to telling the story of one of the most important leaders of the 20th century, but based on both a script that is taking that sort of challenge into account and the fact that this is a fairly low-budget feature with only so many resources at its disposal, Selma practically has the semblance of a scrappy underdog sort of film that has come out on top in the best of ways.
Putting the focus back on David Oyelowo, in a film that does not feature any of King’s notable speeches in full, due to the film not having the rights to use them, we see an actor convey through his eyes and in his actions taken in various moments really delve into the persona of someone who is aware of the kind of status he has, but who is also a husband, a father, and a man both pleased and frustrated by what he must deal with in life. The film begins with a nice moment of Dr. King rehearsing a speech and putting on one of his ties, only to be helped by his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). The two face more impactful moments later in the film, with a spotlight that could easily be placed on a scene delving into possible infidelities, but it’s a simple start to keep us focused on Dr. King as a man and not the towering figure that he could easily be depicted as, with a performance that could perhaps match the stature of the man being portrayed, but not as easily get across what comes from within. That was an issue in last year’s Mandela, where Idris Elba did a fine job in a story that was trying to encompass too much of a notable figures life into a single film. Meanwhile, Selma is much more in line with Steven Spielberg’s superb Lincoln, which also had a tight focus on one time in the life of a tremendous figure and the backing of a great performance to really capture a version of the man in question, while delivering on the aspects surrounding his character in that film’s story.
As I have been stating, this approach to the characters and the film as a whole is a big part what makes me admire Selma, but there is more to speak to involving Selma’s importance today. So often do we see historical dramas and biopics focused on events that had a cultural impact important enough to be seen portrayed cinematically years later. Only so often do we see these films connect thematically or quite literally to the events of the time in which these films are released. Without diving too explicitly into what is going on in the current American climate, a film such as Selma, which is focused on the passage of the Voting Rights Act and hostile force used against unarmed civilians participating in protest marches, has plenty of relevance in today’s current climate. There may be some coincidence in the timeliness of the release of this film, though DuVernay has been working up until recently to finally finish the feature, but I would hardly say the film stumbles by featuring a closing song by John Legend and Common (who co-stars in a small role) that lays out some pretty clear thoughts on what has and is going on. No, Selma did not have to be a film that matches up to events of today, but the fact that it can both stand on its own as well as function as a reflection of where society is currently easily makes for a film that I can more readily invest in, as well as champion for being more than just an automatic awards contender, just because it is an MLK drama.
To delve into the other aspects of the film; from a technical standpoint, Selma is equally wonderful. You get a sense of the times thanks to the production and costume design, among other aspects. Thanks to some fine cinematography and crafty editing, the staging of certain scenes, particularly the marches, leads to impactful moments that do exactly what is required to convey what violent events took place, without feeling exploitative. Helping these aspects along in the film even more is the decision to really dial down the need for tireless explanation of every event. A quick prompt of the year and location is put on display, but Selma trusts its audience enough to not have to dictate every action taking place. Add a simple, yet effective score by Jason Moran and Selma is a film that lasts for just over two hours and feels like a true accomplishment throughout in nearly every respect.
There is a lot to appreciate in Selma. It is well-acted and well-produced, making a big name for director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb, and a much bigger name for David Oyelowo, who has been rising in the ranks in recent years. Plenty of credit goes to the supporting cast as well, particularly Tom Wilkinson, along with the whole crew behind this film. An amazing film came from what must have been amazing effort from a team of people that knew what they were getting into and wanted to get it right. Selma was the result and it is an extraordinary achievement.
Martin Luther King: The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summon us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.