‘Selma’ would have been a respected movie no matter what. It’s simply too accomplished and moving to ignore. Yet thanks to unfortunate circumstance, the film feels just as much like a portrait of current U.S. race relations as it is a window into the past.
No one involved in the production could have anticipated the real life tragedies of today that the film seems to address directly, but it happened. Thankfully in this case, acknowledging those similarities doesn’t come off as a smug Oscar bait marketing tactic. It just accidentally transforms ‘Selma’ from an impressive Martin Luther King bio-pic into an important movie of the moment.
The impeccably researched debut script from Paul Webb and an elegantly understated performance from David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ease audiences into the depressingly true, yet ultimately inspiring story. Things kick off with the disgusting race war bombing that killed four innocent African American girls, and signaled how fraught, tense and tragic the Civil Rights movement had become. Slowly, the controversy regarding the right for black men and women to vote in the South emerges, and King decides to take the issue on as his latest crusade.
Through difficult chats with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King makes it clear that this is a major issue demanding attention and that he will stage peaceful protests to confront it head on. A racist Southern senator (Tim Roth) is furious, while even King’s closest supporters and advisors worry about following through with the protest. Then it happens, and rather quickly devolves from peaceful protest into a riot fueled by white hate. Throughout it all, King retains his trademark cool and compassion. While the King family estate didn’t allow any of his famous speeches to be used in the film, the screenplay delivers plenty of new spins on those old talks that are practically guaranteed to get eyes watering and hearts beating amongst all audiences.
Directing duties for this Paramount prestige picture fell onto Ava DuVernay, who previously had only Sundance-flavored indies under her belt. She wasn’t the first name on the list of directing candidates and was far from the most famous, yet the choice was clearly inspired. Even though this is a movie that wears its socially conscious goals on its sleeve and strives openly for cultural importance, DuVernay keeps things small. Her camera lingers on character over spectacle. The period design is crafted to the smallest detail. The director’s goal was to create a film that felt observational and real. For the most part, she pulled it off admirably.
Aside from moments of cartoon villainy out of a few racist stereotypes, the movie feels like a tiny procedural and character study in the best possible sense. You feel as though you’re watching a long lost documentary about this time, and the filmmakers keep their sermonizing minimal. This is a bio-pic with the careful construction of reality usually reserved for procedurals. DuVernay deserves acclaim for her soft touch and attention to detail, as does the remarkable Oyelowo, whose sensitive portrayal of the great Martin Luther King is a master class in subtlety. He becomes the icon by creating a complex character who happens to be MLK. There’s no obvious Oscar grandstanding in his performance, and Oyelowo deserves every scrap of awards recognition coming his way.
Beyond how sensitively and beautifully conceived ‘Selma’ truly is, the film demands to be seen due to its mirroring and echoing of the horrifically unjust images that we all saw come out of Ferguson, Missouri last year. It’s remarkable how similar many of the images, themes, ironies and tragedies in this film are to what recently happened. As a result, the cry for peace and tolerance at the center of ‘Selma’ resonates that much more strongly and directly. That history could repeat itself in such an eerily similar way is the ultimate testament to the points that DuVernay and company explore in this film, which deserves to become a cultural talking point for that very reason. It’s sadly all too easy for knee-jerk cultural commentators to poke holes in the Ferguson situation through blind ignorance, but much more difficult when held up against what happens in ‘Selma’ (especially considering that the issues that sparked the film’s violence are impossible to defend on the wrong side of history now).
The filmmakers may not have planned for their movie to speak so directly to the current cultural climate, but they made something that’s accidentally perfect to serve that purpose. Even if you don’t normally see this type of Oscar bait bio, the movie is more than worthy of a viewing purely for that discussion. Any flaws ‘Selma’ has are minor and easy to ignore – with the possible exception of Oprah’s fleeting onscreen appearance, which is so distractingly and awkwardly shot and crammed into the movie around her schedule that it sadly dulls the realism of a crucial sequence. On the other hand, its strengths demand to be explored by anyone with a conscience and a sense of history. Not to be missed.