Review – Selma

A defining moment in a nation’s history gets the film it deserves in this sure-footed drama that forsakes hagiography and gets to the human story between the lines.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

With such weighty material to work with, director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb could so easily have served up a Hallmark-friendly Martin Luther King, Jr greatest hits package that ignored the man.

However, without MLK’s speeches to work with following the decision by his estate not to allow their use, the filmmakers have instead been liberated from the baggage those words bring with them to show us that King was a man just like anyone else; one trying to make the right choices in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

The strength of Selma comes from showing us King the politician, King the opportunist, King the strategist; while also having the bravery to sideline MLK for stretches to focus on his fellow activists as they prepare for the crucial 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.

The length of the journey ahead is powerfully juxtaposed in the opening reel as King accepts the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, while in the next scene a Baptist church is bombed in Alabama, killing four young black girls. This is followed by Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) having her voter registration form denied in Selma by a white registrar on ridiculously spurious grounds.

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

Despite being granted an audience with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), MLK’s (David Oyelowo) calls on the Commander-in-Chief to enact legislation that will enable black citizens to register to vote unencumbered falls on deaf ears, with Johnson stonewalling the “voting thing”.

With Selma chosen by King as the staging post from which to march, the town becomes a hotbed for racial tension as a brutal police force, led by its racist Sheriff stand in the way of the peaceful protesters and state Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) stokes the fires from a safe distance.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

By narrowing in on a relatively brief, but critical moment in the civil rights movement, Selma gives itself the luxury of being able to spend a healthy amount of time with some of the key figures, including Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), James Bevel (Common), John Lewis (Stephan James) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Just like any political movement, conflicting views exist on what strategy to take and DuVernay lets these scenes play out as tensions rise.

Oyelowo, meanwhile, presents King in a number of different ways, from the powerful orator with a gift for stoking a crowd with just the right amount of passionate indignation, to the leader getting his hands dirty on the frontlines. Away from the hullabaloo, Oyelowo paints MLK as a sinner doubting his path and struggling to maintain his marriage to the fiercely strong Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in the face of huge pressure.

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

It’s a marvellously rounded and multi-faceted performance from Oyelowo and no mere caricature. The actor may have MLK’s preaching vocal inflections down to perfection, but there’s a lot more going on. Ejogo too gives an excellent account of herself as someone who isn’t just the wife of Martin Luther King, but a woman in her own right.

The infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ horror show, when the protestors’ initial march on March 7, 1965 was thrown into chaos when they were brutally attacked crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police on horseback is distressing to watch and brilliantly shot by Bradford Young as terrified marchers flee through the eerie fog of tear gas whilst being mercilessly beaten.

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Some have criticised the film for a heavy-handed depiction of Johnson, in particular for suggesting he authorised J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to dig up dirt on King. He’s portrayed as an opportunist (much like any other politician then) whose mind is reluctantly turned by the infamy of Bloody Sunday and at one point utters the ‘N’ word in conversation with the implacable Wallace (not one of Roth’s best performances). It’s perhaps fair to say that DuVernay doesn’t invest as much into these scenes as she does elsewhere, but every film needs its villain and the political establishment (led by the President) is it in the case of Selma.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land.

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16 comments

  1. Brittani · January 30, 2015

    Nice review! I kept meaning to see this in theaters and I never did. I’ll make sure to catch it on DVD.

  2. Keith · January 30, 2015

    Solid review. I really like the film but struggled with its overall intent. What I didn’t struggle with was Oyelowo’s performance. Talking about losing yourself in a character. He was tremendous.

    • Three Rows Back · January 30, 2015

      Much appreciated Keith. Glad you found Oyelowo’s performance as absorbing as I did. In what way did you struggle with the film’s intent?

      • Keith · January 30, 2015

        I’m one of those who found LBJ’s portrayal as troubling. To me he was so detestable. I think he is portrayed as an obstructionist, a racist, and crooked. The use of the FBI to destroy MLK’s family was horrible and according to the film his legacy was the driving force behind him finally taking action. All of that is okay except I really sense the movie wants to be accepted as important historical cinema. In fact in many places it has been received as such. That makes the over-the-top vilification of LBJ a concern.

        And I don’t see why he would have to be a villain. The film is its strongest when it’s focusing on MLK and the courageous people marching in Selma. Properly portraying LBJ wouldn’t have taken away from that at all. So I can’t help but wonder why they felt the need to make the stretches they did.

  3. Andrew · January 30, 2015

    I really need to see this. Wonderful review!

  4. le0pard13 · January 30, 2015

    Wonderful review, Mark, for a favorite of mine. Great job.

  5. Stu · January 30, 2015

    Good read mate! Looking forward to seeing this soon, it sounds / looks really good.

    • Three Rows Back · January 30, 2015

      It really is. I managed to see it as part of Odeon’s Screen Unseen initiative but aim to see it again when it coems out.

  6. ruth · February 1, 2015

    Masterful is the word, Mark! That ‘Bloody Sunday’ was properly distressing to watch and it really put you in that moment, at least for me as I didn’t grow up studying the Civil Rights Movement in school. David Oyelowo was brilliant and so it was really a sore point to see he wasn’t recognized by the Academy. Solid work by DuVernay and I for one would love to see more from her in the future.

    • Three Rows Back · February 4, 2015

      Thank you Ruth! Yeah, Oyelowo should have got an Oscar nod over Bradley Cooper in my book. I’m fascinated to see what DuVernay does next too. This is an exceptional film; one that could have been so easily blown.

  7. Tom · February 2, 2015

    A fine review here. I’m really actually at a loss as to why I haven’t mustered the interest in going out to see this one yet. I know it’s going to be good and I know its’ a vital bit of cinema, but I just. . . I don’t know. But I am more certain it will make for a hell of a rental at some point. Great to see you champion this one too. Oyelowo sounds really impressive.

    • Three Rows Back · February 4, 2015

      Muchos gracias Tom. It’s one of those films that won’t lose anything on the small screen, so if you don’t catch it until it’s on rental or Netflix then no biggie. That said, you’re denying yourself an opportunity to see something special mate.

  8. Mark Walker · February 18, 2015

    Another fine piece of work my friend. Im very much keen to see Oyelowo’s work here but I’m not overly surprised by Tim Roth’s poor display. I’ve never been a fan. I think Roth is vastly overrated.

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