Ava DuVernay’s newest directorial effort Selma marks the end of an awards season majoratively dedicated to the biopic and the true story. With The Imitation Game, The Theory Of Everything and American Sniper arguably telling lesser known tales, or at least lesser known parts of high profile tales, DuVernay’s big screen release focuses instead on one of the most important moments of one of the most important narratives in American history, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps with more pressure to produce the goods than the other biopics with regards to sensitivity and historical weight, I hoped that Selma would be a gripping cinematic experience and not push me over the edge of awards season ‘true story fatigue’.
So, as the title suggests, Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time spent in Selma, Alabama, where he and his activist companions travel to become involved in the protest against black citizens being unlawfully denied the right to vote by local officials. Scenes of the infamous marches and goings on within the town are interspersed with Doctor King’s (played by David Oyelowo) complicated relationships with both his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), whom is portrayed in the film to be less than willing to prioritise the civil rights movement as his number one concern whilst in office. The film does a wonderful job of making the audience feel the same frustrations as the black residents of Selma who are at the brunt of the appalling prejudice that is portrayed. Though the scenes of police violence and public racism within the film are reminiscent of any number of civil rights focused films from the past, the impact of the actions are by no means diminished. I still do, and always will, be completely shocked and horrified at the fact that such acts were perpetrated to such a level no longer than fifty years ago. The film also serves as a chilling parallel and sign of the times with regards to some of the high profile cases of police brutality and wrong doing in the USA in our present society. Interestingly, Selma presents the civil rights struggle from many different perspectives within the black community of Selma. We see Oprah Winfrey as an elderly woman who gets caught up in the movement after being denied the right to register, we see a family ranging in age from their thirties to their eighties stepping forward to take part, we even see a local civil rights group who take offence to Doctor King’s presence within the town, and all of these different perspectives help to create a much more layered and nuanced portrayal of equality fighting than we have seen previously. A certain amount of criticism has been levelled at the film for it’s portrayal of President Johnson and the alleged falsification of his negative attitudes toward Doctor King and his causes, but I must admit that I felt the representation of a President attempting to juggle hundreds of issues at the same time to be believable and credible. At no point in the film is Johnson portrayed as a racist, in fact the character is allowed a moment of piety in his seminal confrontation with one of the picture’s key villains, Governor of Alabama George Wallace. Adding political conflict and tension, whether embellished or not, provides the film with an even more meaty weight and satisfying endgame, and with the outcome of the plot giving both King and Johnson their correct resolutions, I cannot see that any real harm was done.
As with most biopic and historical pictures, the work of the actor in the lead role is absolutely integral to the success of the film, and in this case David Oyelowo holds the entire piece together with the power and authenticity of his performance. Rather than try to mimic Martin Luther King, Jr., Oyelowo’s performance can be better described as an embodiment in spirit and tone of the great man. The two share a power of cadence and a strong charisma that truly comes alive when addressing a large crowd, some of the film’s best scenes being rousing speeches (none of which, interestingly, are the real life words of Doctor King). The film would have fallen completely flat had Oyelowo not been convincing as a leader of men, women and children, but not for one second do you doubt his power and personality throughout the picture, and even when some of the less desirable familial elements of Doctor King’s life are explored do we lose respect for the character. A notable supporting performance comes from Oprah Winfrey as protester Annie Lee Cooper, playing a small but pivotal role that the audience really connect with. Tim Roth gives an evil and unrestrained performance as Governor George Wallace, importantly providing a film whose main villain is racism, a human form of the theoretical villain. The man is nasty without remorse and I must admit at releasing a wry smile upon reading his epilogue conclusion at the end of the picture.
Overall, Selma is a moving and powerful historical piece that not only captures the essence of a great figure but also the struggles of a wider people in conjunction with battling for a greater good. Though the film takes very little chances with respect to its style of story telling, staying well within the lines of classic biopic technique, the message rings loud and clear and I highly doubt that anybody will leave the cinema feeling unaffected by what they have just seen. An important story that needs to be continually told and remains eerily relevant given too many recent tragic circumstances.