Ava DuVernay’s Selma is the film this country needs today. It lands like an anvil at a time when violent racial conflicts are just a click away from our sheltered screens. Watching the film is a painful reminder of how little we, as a country, have progressed in the 50 years since the events depicted in the film. It tells the story of the organized marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965—led by Martin Luther King Jr.—to protest the voting restrictions imposed upon African Americans. As the groups prepare for their peaceful marches, they’re faced with opposition—both from those who’d see them incinerated (like Governor George Wallace) as well as their allies, including President Lyndon B. Johnson who, contrary to the ridiculous controversy surrounding the film, comes out with his legacy intact, even enhanced.
Unlike many films based on historical events (Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave), Selma never feels like homework. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb avoid that pitfall by emphasizing the relationships between characters, and not just between the big names we’re familiar with (MLK, LBJ, Wallace etc). It takes more than one person to organize a peaceful march and DuVernay and her sprawling ensemble cast of magnificent actors, ensure these players get their due. The filmmaker also isn’t afraid to reveal these people as flawed individuals, not above in-fighting and arguments. Even King, who is played by British actor David Oyelowo in a performance defined by its power and soulfulness, isn’t spared. Unlike some movies (The Theory of Everything) that treat their subjects as deities, DuVernay presents King as a thoughtful but incredibly flawed man filled with doubt but who can be stubborn as well as selfish. He isn’t exactly a great husband and his relationship with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is depicted as a complicated one. A scene where she confronts him about his infidelities is a study of acting prowess from both actors. Although Oyelowo (pronounced Oh-yellow-o) isn’t a doppelganger for King, the actor nails his mannerisms and speech patterns while also figuring out how to make the character feel like a complex, real person, instead of an actor playing dress-up.
Intimate, engrossing and even humorous during its numerous character moments yet simultaneously wrenching during its horror-inducing scenes of violence and its consequences, Selma is a work of a filmmaker with a laser sharp focus and control of her storytelling. A lot of Selma’s power is also owed to cinematographer extraordinaire Bradford Young’s sublime lensing. Young’s painterly, shadow-fused lighting of interior-locales is reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ work of the ’70s while his imaginative compositions brings out the best in DuVernay and her actors. Still, it’s DuVernay who deserves most credit for steering this incredibly difficult and personal project without succumbing to the pratfalls of the standard issue “important” historical biopic. Although the riot and march sequences will receive the most attention, her crafting of the many internal debates and phone calls between MLK and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson in magnificent form) as they debate the pros and cons of passing the voting right act, as well as the conversations between LBJ and Wallace (an impressive Tim Roth) is equally riveting. This is as much a story about the political wrangling, back dealings and internal struggles behind organized protests as it is a story of the ugly history of this nation. Selma is hard-hitting, intelligent, and enthralling cinema. Don’t miss it.
Running time: 128 minutes
Companies: Paramount Pictures
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language