I saw Selma at a special preview screening on Martin Luther King Day, over two weeks before its wide release here in the UK and started writing this review that evening. I’ve sat on it a little, saving this post for nearer it’s release on February 6th. But you know how it is when you want to tell people about something so badly. So out of the box it comes. Mere weeks into 2015 and the year is already being very generous with its films. First the revelation of Whiplash, then the continuing greatness of Paul Thomas Anderson with Inherent Vice and now this.
It’s 1965, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) has just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts striving for equality for the black population of America. Yet his work is far from over. A shocking early scene punches the audience with the ongoing hostility across the nation. King urges the newly elected President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) for reform, as inherent racism still silences the mouths of millions of black voters unable to register across the southern states. When Johnson stonewalls, King travels to Selma, Alabama to organise a series of non-violent protests; his aim to capture the media’s attention and front-line the issue for the country to see.
Selma, deftly directed by Ava DuVernay, would work just fine if it were mere historical dramatisation, yet part of what elevates this film – which I would urge everyone reading to see – is how DuVernay uses the past to hold a mirror up to the present. As much as Selma is an inspiration, it is also a biting indictment of how America’s failings in the 60’s remain its same failings fifty years later. History contextualises the hard-earned triumphs here. John Legend and Common’s end titles song “Glory” pointedly references the events in Ferguson last year. Yet the film doesn’t feel undermined by how we may have failed King in the intervening years. DuVernay walks a tightrope. There are occasional wobbles, but her achievement is captivating. We’re accustom to being presented with prestige pictures like this every year. We’re not accustom to being treated to one as good as this. Emotive without slipping into melodrama, angry without hectoring, intelligent without patronising, Selma is the film every other prestige picture wants to be. So few of them achieve such grace.
It’s a remarkable step on for DuVernay, whose prior features I Will Follow and Middle Of Nowhere were modest but well-managed indie character pieces. She makes the transition to Hollywood heavyweight seem deceptively simple, and in the process doesn’t lose her own empathetic sensibilities as a filmmaker. But Selma isn’t just her triumph; witness the astonishing performance from Oyelowo. DuVernay was denied access to the genuine tapes of MLK for use in the film, but you don’t miss the genuine article. The genius (a word I rarely use on here) of Oyelowo’s performance is that it transcends the usual hurdles of reverence or imitation. His MLK feels like the real deal; a complete and complex human being as opposed to a studied impersonation. Aside from this, it’s one of the greatest screen performances of our time. Having now seen the film, the outrage that rippled across the internet following the Oscar snubs for both DuVernay and Oyelowo seems entirely justified.
So magnetic is Oyelowo – channelling King’s own inimitable presence and auditory skills – that the film suffers mildly from his occasional absence. In the late stages of the film he recedes as focus moves to Washington and LBJ’s change of heart. It’s an arguably necessary step for the film to take, and Wilkinson is fine enough as the former president stuck between a rock and a hard place, but Selma is most captivating when it is with Oyelowo and when it is rolling up its sleeves and getting caught up in the righteous fury that doggedly drives the film. The marches across the Edmund Pettus bridge may provide the most suspenseful and dramatic pressure points (memorably captured by Bradford Young’s involving photography), but in truth Selma is expertly paced from beginning to end.
These two hours fly by, whether it be due to the dreaded threat of non-violent protest turning into brutal confrontation with the thuggish Alabama troopers, or the prickling human relationships threatening to detonate King’s movement from the inside. Carmen Ejogo is memorable as Coretta Scott King, approaching the role with the conflicted tenderness so often captured in the eyes of America’s first ladies, while Tim Roth and Stephen Root tackle the thankless roles of the ignorant white men whose fear and intolerance are at the root of King’s struggle. Selma has little interest in painting these men as anything other than racist bureaucrats. In light of the massive wrongs committed against so many black men and women they make for fitting demons, and humbly, just frail, frightened men at the end of the day.
Other facets of the time and the drama raise themselves, placing the events in Selma into context. King’s infidelity is touched upon lightly, helping to add dimension to the man instead of purely lionising his memory, see also his uneasy relationship with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), framed here as competitive and not always mutually respectful. In all things DuVarney channels the essential humanity of the situation; we’ve all been lesser versions of ourselves.
Selma invites the viewer to contemplate the disconnect between the hopes and dreams being fought for on the screen with the imperfect future that ultimately lay ahead of America in the decades that followed. It’s a fierce and important reminder that reform and equality are not finalised issues to be boxed up as history, but ongoing causes that demand raised voices. Selma succeeds because it’s key concern isn’t to memorialise King – this is not his sweeping birth-to-death biography – he is simply a frustrated, struggling figure trying to make a difference. The cause is the thing.
For long stretches there’s little light relief here. This is a serious piece of work. And in truth it’s not a perfect film (some of the staging is a little too formal)… and yet… and yet DuVarney and Oyelowo and all involved still manage to make the film soar. It’s never too heavy, never too crushing. I saw the film and when the end credits began there was applause. The audience was lifted, roused, connected. Selma is destined to be one of the year’s best. See it in a cinema.