Many heroes have received their time in the sun that is the modern cinema experience. From controversial figures like Malcolm X to Mahatma Gandhi, they have all seen amazing treatments of their lives on the big screen. However, a man who is such a looming figure over the American civil rights era and a transformative figure in world history at large has been largely exempt. Perhaps its because his presence is so enormous that he can’t be done justice in 2-3 hours, or maybe we just like to keep his image pure and place it ceremoniously over our mantles. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is the subject of director Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and finally this historical icon is the subject of a major motion picture. Instead of doing a straightforward biopic of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, DuVernay uses the method of working on one of his greatest moments and shows the man in that particular lens of time. This is a great move due the enormity of King’s short lived life. The story begins as King receives the Nobel Peace prize in 1964. We are given a glimpse into his relationship with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) before he takes the stage. The relationship between husband and wife is explored several times and their intimacy is often used to break the intensity of the film and to allow not only King but the audience to catch their breath. The film immediately moves into King’s push to get then President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law to truly enforce the legality of voting rights for Black Americans. The conversations between King and Johnson are some the film’s most powerful. Two complex men both wanting the same endgame, but the realities of politics and slow moving change weighing on both of them. Their dynamic reminds me of the one on one interactions in the film Frost/Nixon. When Johnson makes no promise to pass the law immediately, but rather in the near future, King decides to put his plans into action. He was to conduct a march in Selma, Alabama to bring awareness to the struggle of voting for the everyday Black American. However, the murder of one of the protestors spurs King to organize a larger demonstration from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
As history goes, the march is organized and we meet civil rights icons such as James Bevel, John Lewis, and Andrew Young. These historical figures come into focus over time and are introduced seamlessly, which I thoroughly appreciated. DuVernay’s subtly here made meeting these people less hamfisted as it certainly could have been. Other historical figures such as George Wallace (Tim Roth) makes a brutal appearance. Even people like Bull Connor are felt in speeches and proclamations of past encounters that carried real weight. The world in which we as the audience are dropped into is fully realized and doesn’t ever feel contrived to tell just one part of a story.
Speeches are given, marches begin, and brutality follows. While I am simplifying it here, this cycle is some of the most intense historical drama I have seen in some time. The build to events we already know should not be as impactful, but done right they can feel heavier and more dramatic than any new knowledge. DuVernay gives into a sense of exhaustion when watching these moments and it works on so many levels.
Selma is the film I thought it should have been. The story while being about Martin Luther King Jr.’s historical moment, showed a group of civil rights activists who were also coming into their own simultaneously. The film could have just as easily been about the rise of John Lewis to his position in the movement. What makes it King’s story are the quiet moments of fear, confusion, resolve, and frankly shrewdness. Normally, the term 'shrewd' is not mentioned in the same breath as King’s legacy but DuVernay is not afraid to go at it head first. We do see Martin as a man who is out to win and ironically through non-violence its by any means necessary. He is media savvy and knows his opponent and he isn’t afraid to utilize their flaws for his benefit. That was a side of King that is rarely talked about in proper circles but its very much a part of the crux of who he was, and Selma properly shows him in that light.
David Oyelowo gives a stunning performance as King. Never letting a scene slip by without the full weight of King’s power loom. Oyelowo delivered the speeches with the proper diction and cadence that one would expect; truly a breakthrough performance. Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ played to the sparring partner style of Oyelowo’s King. Wilkinson brought the larger the life Texan back to life. Playing on his ability to be intimidating purely on stature and forcefulness and scared of no one. Tim Roth’s George Wallace was absolutely despicable; perfect depiction. Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King was quiet and powerful in the ways that spouses of powerful icons tend to be. She was a grounded stake back in the reality outside the civil rights movement. She keep him going and checked him when it was needed. Last but certainly not least, Stephan James as John Lewis is the unsung hero of the film. Watching him grow over the course of the film was amazing to watch. Stephan James gave Lewis an innocence that morphed properly into a man who had walked to the edge and look into the brink that was true hatred and fought back in a new way. Overall, Selma is a fantastic attempt at telling a story that is nearly impossible to do properly. Capturing the sheer impact of the moment and the emotional weight could be foiled by over exposing the audience to Martin Luther King Jr. and thereby destroying him on screen. Instead we get the proper amount of his leadership, the rise of his own people, and the coalition that he is able to form that in the end trumps all.
[easyreview title= "Review of Selma" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]