Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
In 1965 civil rights was an issue that had divided a nation. In the southern US, African Americans were still being denied their right to vote and were treated as second class citizens living under segregation. Attempts to address this were often met with brutal retaliations, either from the whte citizenry or even the actual sheriff’s departments themselves, often with the tacit approval of state governors. Into this powder keg environment comes Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) and a coalition of civil rights activists, landing in the small town of Selma, Alabama. Their efforts lead to a number of the most memorable acts of the Civil Rights Movement, and helped to change the face of American politics.
Selma is a film rich in speeches. Hardly surprising, when it covers a section of the life of one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, at a time when he was at the height of his power. David Oyelowo captures the passion and the power of King here, conveying a genuine sense of the man. Between his performance and director Ava DuVernay’s eye for detail in staging these events, the audience gets a feel for what it must have been like to be at the centre of things. DuVernay effortlessly moves back and forth between stock footage and staged sequences during key events. The effect is visceral, especially in the sequences set on the Pettus Bridge. We are given a vivid reminder of the personal cost of the movement as we are thrown into the turmoil of Bloody Sunday, as well as confirmation that these events did happen from the news footage. It is a sobering scene, and one of the key sequences that anchor this film.
For an obvious prestige piece, Selma manages to stay away from feeling heavy handed in its portrayal of events. Possibly this is because the events themselves are of such import or are so shocking that it seems justified. It does flag a little when examining the personal aspects of King’s life, an aspect that is curiously well documented by FBI surveillance thanks to J Edgar Hoover’s obsession with King. Here Selma slips into melodrama, in part because it is hard to reconcile the private with the public character, but it gives Oyelowo some shade to work with in his portrayal, exploring self doubt in the man rather than seem on too messianic an arc.
As to be expected from such a picture it also has a fine ensemble cast to back Oyelowo. Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Wendell Peirce and Common all turn up here. In fact the cast actually becomes a distraction at times, such as when Martin Sheen pops up in a small cameo as a judge, diluting the message.
A powerful and timely reminder of a era of American history that’s ramifications echo through to today. Well constructed, acted and filmed, Selma is a moving piece of cinema.