With all the events that have happened in 2014, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which chronicles Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Alabama after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, seems more than a fitting way to end the year. The director’s eye for detail and the powerful way in which she tells the story flows and ebbs through the screen like a passing river that demands attention. And it does most certainly commandeer that attention and more than deserves it. With its outstanding cast performances, its message, and the effecting way in which its told, Selma will leave its impact on you in an emotional and thought-provoking way.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. In 1965, African Americans still had to jump through many hurdles just to be able to vote because the laws made it absurdly hard for them to be able to exercise what is essentially every citizen’s right. Simply put, everything that stood in the way of their rights was utterly ridiculous and just another complication that no one should have to endure.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, is trying to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the bill that will allow African Americans to vote without any of the complications. Down in Selma, Alabama, tensions between blacks and whites are as high as ever and King and his team choose to head down there to organize a series of peaceful marches. They’re met with brute force from citizens of the town as well as the police, but they plow on in hopes that things will get better.
DuVernay puts a fantastic ensemble cast together for this film and employs the use of their talents to really transcend the screen in a way that many have not been able to do before. The events and conversations in the film could also be attributed to what’s been happening in the United States over the last year, and while watching, it will really hit home and cause you to take a step back and really feel these moments that have unfortunately not faded from society.
What DuVernay gets right in a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. is the choice to not focus the film on his entire life. She chooses a powerful moment in time to channel her energy into because telling the entire life story of the famed Civil Rights leader and speaker would not have done justice, nor would it have been as powerful as what DuVernay lays before us. The film is beautiful in the sense that every conversation and scene meaningful and emotional in a way most films only ever dream of being. It’ll make you feel so profoundly and move you so powerfully because of its ability to take you back to that time.
The scene with the little girls in the Selma church is immediately gripping and though you know what will happen, it still takes you off guard and shocks your system at the abruptness of it. This kind of storytelling is what DuVernay excels at. She gives us such strong moments, such emotionally gripping moments that you have no choice but to be riveted to the screen. In that vein, the cinematography is outstanding, and the editing of the scenes where there is violence taking place feels like you’re watching from your couch at home of something that might be happening on the news. Truly fantastic and thematically on point.
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. is a revelation. It’s obvious the actor studied King’s mannerisms and speaking tone very closely because everything about him screams Dr. King. There are times when you have to remind yourself that he is, in fact, not King himself. Every movement, every sentence he speaks is moving, right down to the way he gestures with his hands while giving speeches. Oyelowo also shows us King’s vulnerable side and gives us King the human being and struggling family man with concerns and faults, and doesn’t just focus on King, the leader. Oyelowo deserves to be recognized in the Best Actor category for his portrayal in this film.
Many will recognize Oprah Winfrey in the film, though what’s refreshing is that she’s not the center of this film at all, but her role is still a wonderful one. With her, we see a regular citizen and her struggle just to vote, especially with her opening scene of filling out the paperwork to exercise her right and have her cruelly turned away, all while she takes it stoically. It’s another reason why this film stands out, with its moments of silence and its ability to be strongly effective without the use of long monologues. Scenes are framed carefully, in a way you can absorb everything slowly and surely.
The entire cast is worthy of being mentioned for their superb performances, and brief appearances by actors such as Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Martin Sheen are well placed and don’t overshadow the film with their well-known names. But Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is most notable for her standout performance as King’s supportive, but frustrated wife. Frustrated because of the constant fear her family is living under due to King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. She is a pillar of strength and patience and Ejogo exemplifies Coretta’s humanity just as much as Oyelowo does with King.
Tom Wilkinson shows us the reluctance and frustration of President Lyndon B. Johnson firsthand and how his constant meetings with King get more tense as the movie progresses. Johnson, wanting to hold off on passing a new voting law for African Americans, gets heated up every which way when things don’t go his way, and his relationship with King is an interesting one, to say the least.
Every time King meets with anyone, DuVernay includes the FBI file notes, where they watch, silently and offscreen, King’s every move. This is a brilliant tactic on her part because it heightens the tension of all the events that are already playing out before us and also serves as a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t just happen peacefully and overnight, but there was a lot of struggle and spying done on the government’s part which was employed as a scare tactic to get their way and keep things under control.
Selma is one of the best films of the year. It’s well-acted, superbly-directed (the final scenes that are wonderfully interspersed with film scenes and real footage from the actual march adds an extraordinary personal touch), and full of great drama, with some light humor to keep things from getting to be too much. DuVernay’s film is a must-watch and one that deserves every accolade it gets. Selma comes at an exceptional time and the film’s core message and moments are every bit as powerful no matter how much time has passed.