In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) marched thousands in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery to secure equal voting rights for blacks. Despite harassment from law enforcement in Selma and pro-segregation governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), Dr. King’s nonviolent movement helped convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to push the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Let’s make a pact to drop the arguments about whether or not Selma is historically accurate. Nobody bats a goddamn eye at films like Braveheart or Pearl Harbor. But the moment a film about the black struggle filmed by a black director comes out (one that’s backed up by a reporter who witnessed the events in Selma), white people everywhere suddenly materialize with degrees in Black-American History to school everyone on “what really happened.” Not only is this insulting to the millions of black people who lived it and still encounter racism today (with people constantly telling them racism doesn’t exist anymore, even though it does) but it also distracts from the fact that this is one of the better films that’s come out this year.
Now, one of the things I like about Selma is that it didn’t try to cover the entirety of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Where other films about historical figures or events usually miss out on character development because they need to tell the whole story in a limited run-time, Selma used its two hours to really drive home the effects the march from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights had on Dr. King, his supporters, and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).
Also, not once did it feel like one of those cheesy “We all learned a valuable lesson” films based on a true story, where the black people and white people hold hands, dance in the streets, and sing “It’s a Small World After All” (I’m looking at you, The Blind Side). Most of that’s because it was filmed by someone who is/has grown up black, whereas the other films are usually written and directed by smug white people who pat themselves on the back for conquering racism.
Selma was approached with such solemnity by director Ava Duvernay and writer Paul Webb that it didn’t have to force its message about racism and civil rights. Not to mention, it’s well-timed (in the “I wish that wasn’t the case” way) after the never-ending shitstorm of racism, hate crimes, and civil unrest in 2014. I could write for days about how a movie centered on an event 50 years ago manages to still be relevant today. But let’s just leave it at this—you’re an idiot if you can’t see the uncomfortable similarities between Selma and Ferguson.
Now, Ava Duvernay. She deserves that Best Director nomination from the Golden Globes (and then some…*cough* Oscars). I haven’t seen style this good in a historical drama since Spielberg’s Lincoln. So much of a story’s tone can be communicated through direction, and Duvernay’s use of high and low camera angles (to demonstrate dynamics among characters) and backlighting and shadowing (to suggest character intent) did exactly that. It might sound amateur, but I assure you this type of visual communication requires so much more thought than, say, dialogue. And it pays off because Selma is beautiful from a style standpoint. Here’s hoping for that Oscar nod.
David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King was magnificent, too. Not only does Oyelowo look and sound the part (You can tell he studied the hell out of King’s mannerisms and speech patterns), but he took an iconic figure and presented a side we’ve never seen. We all know the preacher who delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But how many know the man whose activism strained his marriage or who butted heads with Malcolm X and President Johnson? We’ve always been shown the saint-like side of Dr. King, never the human side. Selma and Oyelowo gave us just that. A human who struggles.
Overall, Selma is a full-package film that deserves Best Picture nominations. It’s somber yet stylish (thanks to director Ava Duvernay), it doesn’t beat you over the head with its message about racism and civil rights, and David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is pure perfection. Compared to some of the shallow films among this year’s award contenders, I think Selma is a standout (and I’m kind of annoyed that it’s getting ignored for movies like The Imitation Game).
For my radio review of Selma on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 25:28 mark).