In some ways, the absence of “I Have a Dream” from Selma - incredibly only the first feature film to give the biopic treatment to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr - is symbolic of the film as a whole. It’s the four words the civil right leader is most known for, but director Ava DuVernay is interested in far more than just compelling oratory.
Selma focuses its gaze on a three-month period in 1965 when King (David Oyelowo) led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights for African-American citizens. The first act sets up the shrewd tactics necessary to induce change; Having campaigned in Albany for nine months with no results, it’s decided that Selma is the place to stage the protest, the county already a fervent breeding ground of racial inequality and therefore more likely to garner media attention. While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) work diligently to force President Lyndon B. Johnson (an effective Tom Wilkinson) into action, the film also offers up an examination of how the civil rights movement affected its leader, both at home and as a man.
From the outset, the screenplay from Paul Webb and Duvernay (who is uncredited despite giving the script a major overhaul) strives for more than the simple ‘great man’ storytelling that is found in many Hollywood biopics today. This Martin Luther King cracks jokes with his buddies at the dinner table and then takes out the trash. This Martin Luther King worries about what his friends back home will think of him in his fancy getup. Simply put, this Martin Luther King is a man.
Moreover, he’s a man with some serious problems and doubts. On more than one occasion, King questions how long he can continue leading the campaign. Only through the words and wisdom of others is he given strength to carry on. Indeed, Selma goes to great lengths to show the work that went into the movement as a whole, giving King’s allies Andrew Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and others moments to shine while keeping the focus on the central issues at play.
Additionally, Selma admirably doesn’t shy away from King’s private troubles at home, and a scene in which he is confronted by his wife Coretta (a superb and efficient Carmen Ejogo) over his infidelity is a masterclass on the usage and impact of silence.
This is not to say that you don’t get the righteous, laudable King at all – far from it. Nobody actually verbalises the fact that King is an inspirational leader, but we’re implicitly shown that that’s the case throughout. It’s there when he’s comforting loved ones for their loss. It’s clear again when he’s strategizing with his most trusted colleagues. And it’s most evident when he’s giving impassioned speeches, all of which slowly build to powerful and stirring climaxes.
As King, Oyelowo is superlative. More than just the spot-on cadences and the physical transformation – he shaved his hairline and put on 30 pounds for the role – he expertly reflects King’s mental and spiritual weariness while concurrently embodying the charisma and spirit of the icon. Oyelowo has produced strong work previously in films such as The Butler and Red Tails but this is a transcendent, career-best performance. Whether in small or sizable roles the rest of the ensemble all manage to leave an effective impression, unsurprising when the cast includes veteran character actors like Tim Roth, Wendell Pierce, Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr and Giovanni Ribisi.
Lee Daniels and Stephen Frears were both positioned to direct Selma before DuVernay was attached, and with her third and biggest feature she solidifies herself as a director to watch. As with her previous film Middle of Nowhere (also starring Oyelowo), she’s aided once more by ace cinematographer Bradford Young, and it’s an impressive collaboration. Not only are there any number of shots which are impeccably framed and lit, the violence is staged in appropriately visceral fashion. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘Bloody Sunday’ sequence on Edmund Pettus Bridge, wherein every lash of a whip and every crack of a bat is given maximum impact.
Angering as well as inspiring, Selma is also a timely film whose importance cannot go overstated. To that end, the song that plays over the credits – entitled ‘Glory’ by Common and John Legend – is a moving ballad that beautifully merges past with present.