Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen
Director: Ava DurVernay
Writer: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay
It is always tough for a film to capture the spirit of a person or an event. It is even tougher for a film to capture an idea. This is what Selma sets out to do as it tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma marches of 1965 and, on a greater level, of the struggle against racism in America. The campaign for equal rights has been a long and difficult fight and it is one that still rages on even today. It is astonishing to see how a film about an event that took place fifty years ago can deliver a message that still rings true and is still relevant. It takes a powerful film to deliver a powerful message and Selma delivers all of the passion, all of the vivacity and all of the resoluteness that Dr. King showed on the day that he walked into Montgomery.
The film opens with Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) being presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the recognition and the prestige that this accolade brings, the Human Rights Campaign is still far from over. Over in Alabama we see four African-American girls get killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion and we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) applying for voting registration only to be unjustly rejected. King resolves to start actively pushing for the African-American right to vote and appeals to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law that would enforce this right. Johnson however insists that he has other important issues to deal with and cannot give King what he wants at this time. One of the main controversies of this film is its portrayal of Johnson as being hesitant to help King, a portrayal that has been deemed historically inaccurate. However, to me at least, it seems both reasonable and believable that Johnson would have reservations and other concerns on his mind. Whether it was historically accurate or not, I think that it does a good job of highlighting and explaining the ambivalence exhibited by many well-intentioned people at this time. Subsequently, without the President’s backing, King travels to Selma, Alabama, and leads the charge for equal voting rights.
The fight proves difficult as King and his comrades come in opposition against the Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), a man who personifies the most hateful aspects of racism and prejudice. As Wallace adopts a policy of violence and brutality to combat King and the black Selma residents, King remains steadfast on maintaining a stance of non-violence. He is adamant that the only way the struggle of the African-Americans can be overcome is if they do not allow themselves to give in to aggression or hate. He instead insists that the people must place their faith and their trust into peace, love and God. This becomes more arduous and, in King’s view, all the more fundamental as the violence rages on and the death toll continues to rise. He then announces his intention to lead a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in the name of African-American suffrage. He hopes that by raising enough awareness of their plight and by casting a spotlight onto the crimes and the atrocities being committed upon them, he might be able to force the President into action. This leads many of King’s followers to question whether he truly has their best interest at heart.
The portrayal of Martin Luther King is undoubtedly the film’s driving force. Oyelowo delivers a layered performance as he portrays King both as an icon and as a man. He perfectly captures the voice and the mannerisms of Dr. King as he stands on the podium delivering those rousing speeches but he is also able to deliver a subtle and affective performance as he portrays King’s human side. Martin Luther King was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th century, but he was a man nonetheless; a man with doubts, a man with fears, and a man with weaknesses. The film never tries to eulogise him but instead shows him as the man he was, warts and all. It never strays away from showing the more ignoble aspects of his life as we see in one particularly striking scene when King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him on his infidelity. However they also show King as a man capable of extraordinary love and empathy, as shown when comes to the hospital to weep for a young victim of a hate crime and to comfort a grieving grandfather.
Ava DuVernay was not a name I was familiar with until I saw this film. She does an admirable job of depicting this monumental event and of the sufferings of the African-American people. She does not pull any punches as she shows just how cruel and how brutal these tribulations could become. She is also able to maintain a fair-minded approach to the story as she is careful not to idolise King. DuVernay provides balance by showing that there were those in Selma who disagreed with King’s methods and questioned his intentions. Even King has his moments of doubt when he starts wondering whether their cause is worth all of the suffering and casualties that it brings. DuVernay has been criticised for taking historical liberties and for portraying real life figures unfairly. However to criticise the film for its historicity is to miss the point. It’s not about capturing what happened, it’s about capturing the spirit of what happened. At the end of the day this is a film about the fight against prejudice and racism. This is a film about the centuries long struggle that is still ongoing today. It is about showing a single moment in time when a group of people came together and showed the world that they were not going to take it anymore, when they faced the obstacles and adversities that opposed them and triumphed.
Selma is a marvellous and a powerful film. It does an incredible job of capturing the inspirational and significant crusade of a people against an inveterate evil and of the extraordinary man who led them. It delivers an importantly relevant message as it shows us just how far we’ve all come but also how much further there still is to go. On top of that it also finishes on that kick-ass Oscar-winning song ‘Glory’ by John Legend and Common. On the whole it is an excellent and an important film that everyone should see.