A powerful reminder
There haven’t been many movies ambitious enough to attempt to take on the life of Civil Rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and with the late 2014 release of “Selma” it would be unlikely that any future offerings will do a better job of capturing the emotion and the drama of the critical period in American history and the central figure who had dreams of equality and justice.
“Selma” is a powerhouse picture that impressively illuminates the intricate details of the often larger-than-life Baptist minister over the course of three months in 1965 when King Jr. orchestrated a non-violent protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. “Selma” accomplishes this amazingly—and refreshingly—by transcending the current political landscape. Yes, the film is achingly topical. But rather than resort to fist-pounding ideological grandstanding, British director Ava DuVernay superbly and gracefully depicts King’s challenges, his self-doubts, the support network that buoyed him and his unparalleled ability to galvanize an audience.
With racial tensions in the U.S. at a boiling point, King sought to change voting laws and restrictions that made it almost impossible for blacks to vote in local elections. “Selma” educates as much as it inspires, describing the plight of blacks without going out of its way to demonize white leaders or depict blacks as helpless victims. (The inability to do that undermined the effectiveness of “12 Years a Slave.”). Still, the film doesn’t flinch when it comes to the crack of law enforcement’s bull whips on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as over 500 protesters (black AND white) gather to make their final descent into Montgomery. “Selma” is less about police brutality and more about the complexities of civil disobedience and the articulate, yet singularly determined way King sought change.
British actor David Oyelowo’s performance as King Jr. is a key to “Selma’s” strength. With the help of screenwriter Paul Webb, Oyelowo’s solemn yet sympathetic gaze is a penetrating portrayal – we see the pain in his face as if he understands the burden he carries and refuses to forsake. Two important, small scenes define “Selma’s” exceptional skill in dealing with delicate issues: one, the death of a young protestor whose grandfather King visits in a coroner’s office, the other King’s womanizing. These depictions demonstrate the overarching effectiveness of “less-is-more” filmmaking both so rare these days.
There is some controversy surrounding President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal as being an antagonistic figure to King, but the truth is more layered than what is shown. It was a complicated time, and Johnson (played by another Brit, Tom Wilkinson) was generally supportive of King. But his role in both the escalations in Vietnam and the racial divide that was still very much intact in the South made King and Johnson’s relationship a decidedly challenging one.
The less said about producer Oprah Winfrey’s unnecessary and distracting inclusion in the film, the better.
Given the degree of difficulty of making such a film ring true in nearly all the right—and potentially polarizing—places, “Selma” stands as a benchmark and clearly belongs in the discussion of the best films of 2014.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence and brief strong language.