Selma Review

Posted: January 17, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

selma_ver2Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most important figures of the 20th century. His efforts of protest and is goals for equality of black citizens were highly influential and ground-breaking. He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement during a tumultuous decade of change, helping to bring issues of race and discrimination to the forefront of public discussion and it’s hard to imagine how American history would have turned out without him. Today, King is still seen as a paragon of equality and progress. Given such a pedigree, it’s amazing to think the man has never received a proper biopic to bring his legacy to the screen. Far less important icons have received film adaptations and if Malcolm X, the other major civil rights leader of the 1960s, was worthy of such a high profile film, surely Martin Luther King was too. There have been a few interesting looking documentaries, and some made-for-TV movies, but there has still been a gaping hole for a feature. That hole has finally been filled by newcomer Ava DuVernay’s film Selma.

The film opens in 1965, with Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) already being a highly known figure of the civil rights movement. Despite his efforts and the slow progress of race relations, tensions are still high, with many black citizens unable to vote. Though technically they have the right to vote, there are still a plethora of barriers which keep blacks from having a voice in politics. King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss the issue, but is politely told that while Johnson is sympathetic and supportive of King’s efforts, he simply has too much on his plate to really deal with the issue now. Unsatisfied, King takes matters into his own hands by leading a protest march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. This proves to be very dangerous due to the extremely high racial tensions in the state, but it also has the potential to propel the struggle into the mainstream media. Additionally, the march places tremendous stress on King’s own familial relationship, specifically to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

The first major decision that was made with this film was the decision not to make a birth to death biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., but to look at a specific chapter of the man’s life. This allows writer/director Ava DuVernay and co-writer Paul Webb really focus on some key elements and themes. The Selma marches are an extremely important part of the civil rights struggle and the film’s presentation of the facts are engaging, interesting, and educational. What works best about the story is not necessarily the grand speeches and big moments of the march, but the behind the scenes political machinations taken by all sides. It’s very interesting to see these backroom dealings explored and it gives a greater sense of why civil change was so hard. The approach rather reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, both in how it focuses on a specific part of its subject’s life, and how it explores the gritty politics that went behind landmark historical moments.

Interesting as the history is, the real reason Selma resonates as powerfully as it does is because its exploration of the past bears heavily on contemporary issues. The catalyst for the Selma marches was the blocking of racialized groups in voting, which is still a common issue today. Though technically everyone has the right to vote, systemic prejudice has led to certain votes counting for less. Additionally, a major theme of the film is the idea that while the civil rights movement is important, it is not a top priority for the President. Given that we still live in a time where black citizens often feel their struggles are seen as an afterthought, such material hits hard. However perhaps the most contemporary issue is raised in the scenes of police brutality, both militaristic response to the protesters, as well as a scene where a young black man is shot in cold blood by an officer. Coming off the summer of Michael Brown’s death and the resulting riots in Ferguson, such material depicting tensions between police and the black community is extraordinarily relevant. This is important to note because when films of this type come out, many people have a reaction of, “It’s crazy how bad things used to be,” but one of the most essential themes of Selma is how little things have actually changed from the 1960s to now. Yes, progress has been made, but the battle is far from over. It’s why the film ends on the original song “Glory”, which refers to how victory will come one day, but not yet.

Though David Oyelowo does not like much like Martin Luther King Jr., he does an excellent job embodying the spirit and legacy of the man. This is not an impression, but a passionate and real performance from an actor who really proves himself here. Oyelowo is great both in the large scale speech scenes and the intellectual political scenes, but also in humble and quiet moments among family and friends. It’s a fully three-dimensional character. I was also quite impressed with Carmen Ejogo’s performance as King’s wife, Coretta. Her scenes in the film appear somewhat sporadically, but she still leaves a powerful impression as a woman who values her husband’s work, but is emotionally strained by what she has to go through. The rest of the supporting cast features several lesser known black actors, along with some names, who perfectly embody their characters and sink into their roles well. The white historical figures are played by more known celebrities, which can be a little distracting, but each play their role well so one adjusts quickly enough.

This isn’t Ava DuVernay’s first film, but it is her first work to be seen by a major audience and she makes a strong case for herself. Selma is directed with focus and control, with DuVernay putting together a tight package full of great performances from a large cast. DuVernay is also able to craft some very strong scenes and set-pieces. Some of the protests which erupt into police brutality are especially shocking in their violence and DuVernay does a good job capturing the horror of it on film. She also compiled an excellent soundtrack with great use of period music, an appropriate cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, and an especially powerful montage near the end set to modern track “Yesterday Was Hard On All Of Us”. Granted, DuVernay does make some missteps. A few shots feel over directed and I also wasn’t very fond of the film’s cinematography, which felt messily lit. Still, on the whole this is a pretty polished film with high production values and a firm sense of control.

Every year around Oscar season there are a slew of historical biopics released which feel tailored solely for awards bodies. 2014’s The Theory of Everything and certainly The Imitation Game were guilty of just that. I don’t blame anyone who had mentally lumped Selma in as that type of film but this is not the case at all. This is a rich and powerful film which is very well-made and features some great performances. It also depicts a crucial moment in the history of 20th century America and its commentary on contemporary issues is timely and nuanced. People often praise various historical films as being important due to the events they depict. Selma is indeed an important film, not for what it says about yesterday, but for what it says about today.

A

Comments
  1. Dan O. says:

    Good review Dan. A very well-done movie; one that never fully shows its support for one individual in particular. As much as they just show everybody’s points-of-views and hardly sympathize one or the other.

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