“The decision is with your side, sir. Not ours.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished a lot and brought attention to many civil rights matters during his very brief life, but one moment known as the “I Have a Dream” speech sometimes overshadows everything else he had done. In Selma, attention is given to the events in 1965, events that would further shape history.
A bombing that kills four young African-American girls at a church in Birmingham, Alabama serves as a major incendiary moment that ups the ante in the Civil Rights Movement. Though there has been some very minor headway in voting for the minority group, not enough has been made, and not being able to vote means no representation as it pertains to the court and juror system. After failed attempts to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to sign a voting rights bill into law, Rev. MLK (David Oyelowo), knows that he and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) must take matters into their own hands. By marching from Selma to Montgomery, AL, a statement will be made, and change will be obtained.
It could just be yours truly, but does it seem like the past calendar year has included more movies based upon historical figures than usual? Whatever the case, some, like The Theory of Everything and Get On Up, attempt to take a wide look at the famous person’s life. Others, like The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, and now Selma, focus upon a specific period in the subject’s life. No one approach is definitively better than the other, but centering in on a specific period does appear to give a biography piece more focus, and at the very least not shock or disappoint people when certain events are not mentioned. I don’t think I would call Selma particularly riveting and I am sure it will not be watched again by my eyes, but it is a definite must watch during this moviegoing period.
In a way, watching Selma unfold is like being exposed to the events for first time. Part of that is due to the way somewhat unknown director Ava DuVernay handles the material, less like a history book or lecture and more of just a natural story. The audience knows of its importance, and so do the characters involved in it. But these characters are living and breathing, meaning that they clash and experience friction just like in real life, and all don’t necessarily share the same way to achieve the end goal. Some don’t even share the same end goal. It is a nice look at the inner-workings of a group, and just because they are unified in public doesn’t mean that the group is in lockstep behind closed doors.
The other part of this that may end up being underlooked is how the movie looks. As this progresses on, DuVernay fully realizes the horrors and the savagery that came about with these marches with impressive cinematography. As impressive is frequently utilizing the right depth and angles in the various speech and behind closed doors conversation scenes, as their correct usage gives more dramatic tension and heft to these moments. It is really minute, and yours truly probably could have described this better, but know that it all adds up to a very tight-looking production.
Much of the attention and accolades given to Selma will be towards the man who portrays one of the best orators in America’s history. David Oyelowo is a name that has been picking up steam for a few years now, but this performance probably marks his arrival into the mainstream. From appearance to diction, the portrayal is spot-on. And it isn’t overly showy; in most scenes he is humble and understated like MLK likely was. Even when there isn’t a whole lot going on as the movie gets a little dull at times, he keeps it relatively on course by his presence alone. When those crowd-addressing speeches come to light though, Oyelowo delivers charisma and a real intensity with every spoken word.
His performance isn’t the only one worth mentioning. Just about everyone who appears here does an extremely great job, like Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth as Confederate state governor George Wallace in supporting roles. Underneath these supporting characters are smaller roles that are comprised by fairly younger actors and actresses, but without their good work, the emotional moments would lack a little in potency. It isn’t hard to imagine some of these people going on to obtain more work and larger roles within them.
Selma is definitely a historical film, but for all of the recent racial events in the recent news, it does feel awfully current and maybe needed now. The film is strong in most areas, but perhaps it is strongest in how it connects to our present day, a fact it doesn’t shy away from as heard by its end credits song by John Legend and Common. Undoubtedly race relations have come a long way in 50 years, but there is still much work to be done.
Photo credits go to theguardian.com, bellanaija.com, and insidemovies.ew.com.
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