Amidst the backdrop of recent events in America including the shooting of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Missouri, Selma has a golden opportunity to grip its viewers at a time where racial injustices are ever more present and disturbing. It also has the opportunity to be sensational, if not melodramatic, yet whilst being a masterpiece it is refreshingly lean in its handling of the pivotal events in Selma, Alabama in the year 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. saw it as ‘the place’ to use as a catalyst for democratic equality in getting black people the right to vote without fear of intimidation, bias and violence, fighting against a distracted Lyndon B. Johnson whose priorities were focussed on Vietnam.
David Oyelowo’s performance as King can be described as truly human. With passion and vigour, he immerses himself in the political troubles he battles against, with moving speeches at the podium, electrifying his audiences. He does this with an ongoing sense of fatigue and endurance, showing that despite being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, the inevitability of failure was always there like a storm cloud, and Oyelowo masters this awareness perfectly. He also does a fantastic job at showing the serious flaws in King’s persona- he was far from saintly, faced with issues of infidelity that are apparent in his strained but supportive relationship with wife Coretta (played by a stoic Carmen Ejogo).
Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) patronising treatment of King in the Oval Office as he demands for hastened action is highlighted by the desperately poignant (and expertly shot by cinematographer Bradford Young) evocation of the 16th St. Baptist church bombing, killing four little girls. After a conversation reminiscent of David Cameron’s ‘calm down dear!’ Johnson refuses to budge, leaving King little choice but to use Selma as the ultimate provocation to fuel action, and that it does. Faced with the sinister Alabama Governor (Tim Roth) and the ruthless local law enforcement, the two iconic marches across Edmund Pettus Bridge highlight the courage and vulnerability of the participants against the brutal authority on horseback, beating men and women to the ground through a rank haze of tear gas. Along with the heart breaking murder of protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson, after being shot at blank point range in a café and the bewildered pain of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) as she is knocked down by police, the resonating words of Johnson ‘We Shall Overcome’ rings true in the hearts of viewers. Ava Du Vernay shows the raw story in all its truth, rather than simply sensationalise what could have been simply a memorial.
This is not to say Selma is without flaw; although Oyelowo’s ability to portray contagious vigour through oratorical fireworks, the film is without any of the most memorable speeches. This is due to licensing issues resulting in King’s famous words solely intended for a potential Spielberg biopic in 2009. The misquotation and paraphrase are therefore noticeable, yet these constraints allow us to appreciate the story’s more subtle elements and rich array of characters, rather than relying on obvious and provocative speeches. DuVernay’s film is one of honesty and human courage, and her economical approach may lead to the first black woman being nominated for Best Director Oscar.
Selma is on wide theatrical release now.