Selma (Cloud eight Films, Harpo Films)
A chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Written by Paul Webb. Executive Producers: Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner.
To get a sense of how far society has grown—and where we continue to falter—a look back at a seminal moment in the history of race relations in the U.S. is important. Is it polarizing? Is it inciting or insightful? In the case of Selma, it is most definitely the latter.
Opening with two jarring, yet crucial, scenes depicting issues faced by Southern blacks everyday, Selma is a provocative depiction of Martin Luther King’s days and weeks leading to the landmark 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in the name of voting rights for blacks. It is also a deliberate and thoughtful examination of Dr. King’s mindset as he sets out to achieve equality for blacks through nonviolent protest in the face of long odds. It’s easy to forget the man who displayed such steely resolve while putting his own life on the line often dealt with his own anger, doubt, sadness and frustration.
Selma is not intended to be an historical recount of events (although it gets most of the details correct, according to those who were there). It is about the the personal struggles and experiences of the people who lived and died through this crucial moment in time. And sometimes, viewing those experiences is difficult. People were beaten nearly to death on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. People were beaten to death because they believed in equality. People were murdered for standing up for their rights. Nowhere is that pain for personal and more difficult than watching Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders) speak to King after his grandson, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was murdered by a cop.
Several actors delivered marvelous performances; almost too many to cite, although Tim Roth as Alabama Gov. George Wallace was stellar. Roth is brilliant at playing slimy and smug. He is the perfect actor to portray a villainous Wallace. The vast majority of roles in Selma are bit parts and cameos, as Selma maintains primary focus on MLK and his inner circle of advisers and organizers. Indeed, the actors and actresses who comprise those cameo-type roles are fantastic—Wendell Pierce, Tom Wilkinson, Martin Sheen, Common, to name a few—but they had to yield to the magnificent David Oyelowo as MLK. His portrayal of the Civil Rights leader is breathtaking, but not a cheap impersonation. Oyelowo gave voice to King’s vulnerable side throughout Selma.
To director Ava DuVernay’s credit, Selma takes great pains to depict King as a flawed man, not a demigod. King is undoubtedly an American hero and a patriot, but Selma examines Martin Luther King the man first, then the legacy. DuVernay strikes a fitting balance with the central character; no easy task, for sure. Her depiction of King shows a man facing his own doubts, his own mortality and his own demons. Nowhere is that struggle more evident than in King’s conversations with his wife, Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo.
Ejogo wasn’t given a great deal of material to work with as King’s wife, honestly, but she certainly made Coretta’s presence known and felt throughout Selma. Whether confronting Malcolm X about his plans separate from King’s movement or confronting her husband about the movement or other women, Ejogo gives us a Coretta Scott King that is resilient, driven and passionate. She proves to be MLK’s compass as much as his primary support.
Like other films this year that are based on true stories, some have leveled criticism at Selma for depicting Lyndon Johnson in a less than accurate light. In the film, LBJ is something of an antagonist to King, trying to slow his plans to march. In reality, LBJ was a champion of the Civil Rights movement. Don’t get too caught up in this detail. Remember, films based on true-life events often take license with crucial details for a multitude of reasons. In the case of Selma, it’s not hard to imagine Dr. King was likely frustrated with Washington’s relative reticence. Remember, Selma is a study of the people and their emotions more than it is a study of the events. This does not mitigate Selma’s importance. While not an historic reading, Selma gives viewers a graphic and often uncomfortable view of what people sacrificed to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
An emotional journey told through the eyes of an impressive, ensemble cast, Selma is a landmark study of the human emotion and the human toll during the watershed moment of the American Civil Rights movement. DuVernay successfully juggled a massive topic with multiple elements and maintained a powerful, emotional narrative that resonates with the audience regardless of skin color.
RATING: **** stars (out of five)