Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Director: Ava DuVernay
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
With Selma, director Ava DuVernay (who only has two previous feature films to her credit) has taken a thorny topic with a high degree of difficulty and injected it with a powerful sense of timeliness that could not have been accurately predicted. Truthfully, a film about Martin Luther King Jr. would be resonant during any decade, but with all of the recent battles between white police officers and black citizens, not to mention the whole Ferguson debacle, there's something uncommonly resonant about the film that reaches beyond technical and aesthetic merits. The overwhelming praise for Selma thus far seems to indicate a critic-proof mentality (who really wants to be the cranky dissenter on the MLK biopic, after all?), but it also points to something much more important in terms of topicality. The inability to look at the events depicted throughout DuVernay's powerful, detailed-oriented drama without applying modern connotations goes without saying, but it also zeroes in on how little progress we have made in regards to race-relations in America. That's not to denigrate King's legacy or the huge strides made by multiple others during the height of the civil rights movement; rather, a picture like Selma poses the question of whether or not it can succeed beyond sociological and topical relevancy.
Ultimately, the answer to that question isn't quite as complicated as the issues raised throughout the film, since Selma works in the way it's designed to work, and may even work beyond those parameters. In structuring her film not as a "cradle to the grave" account of King, but rather a pivotal turning point in the history of the civil rights movement, DuVernay captures a raw immediacy that would have been lost had she gone the more by-the-numbers biopic route. There are no young actors portraying King as a child or expository-laden flashback sequences showing what molded and shaped the man; which makes the film, along with something like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, more of a snapshot in history that also happens to place its focus around a revered historical figure.
Capturing the events leading up to, and including, the Selma marches in 1965 with period-appropriate details and gorgeously evocative cinematography from Bradford Young, DuVernay is able to both humanize and elegize King; portrayed here in a towering, wholly committed performance by David Oyelowo. Since he's such a saintly figure, the difficulty of crafting a vision of King that lives up to his magnetic presence while still making him a flawed human being is noteworthy, and Oyelowo brings different shades to the portrayal; going beyond mere mimicry and giving us a fully-dimensional, flawed, but still entirely inspiring personality. A scene that best illustrates this humanity is a quiet one involving a conversation with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) regarding his many infidelities. It's a great scene, perhaps the best in the film, because it gives us so much insight into King's flaws while never dovetailing into extraneous subplots regarding his martial affairs. The look on Coretta's face as the conversation ends is extraordinarily painful, and Ejogo absolutely nails the moment as well as her portrayal overall, giving what could have been a rote long-suffering wife role an added dose of emotional pathos.
Selma has a lot of ground to cover and introduces a bunch of periphery characters, most of whom are either given short shrift or are completely left on the sidelines altogether. For example, both Common and Tessa Thompson show up here as non-violent protestors aiding King, but their interactions seem left on the cutting room floor, almost as if there were entire subplots that DeVurney just couldn't fit in. The most interesting material involves King's political back-and-forth with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), giving us an in-depth look at King's carefully calibrated strategies and just how much influence he had. For his part, Wilkinson plays Johnson as a man with his own political agenda and a vast understanding of the way race-related issues were changing the face of the country, but whose reluctance to push voting rights in the South spikes King's sense of righteous indignation. This boiling rage simmering to explode is also handled expertly during King's fiery monologues delivered from a pulpit to a crowd of angry protestors. His passionate anger at the state of racial issues in the country; both in terms of bigoted whites as well as African Americans, is something one doesn't often get in High School while being spoon-fed snippets of his more uplifting speeches. Oyelowo's brilliant handling of King's rhetoric and DuVurney's stylish framing of such scenes gives what could have played as a greatest hits reel a tangible sense of contemporary relevance that hits home.
The actual plot mechanisms of the film; which involve King and other civil rights leaders trying to get legislation passed to secure voting rights for blacks and a march across the 54 miles of highway from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery sprawls in predictable biopic fashion, but DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb never allow the geopolitical scope overwhelm the intimateness of the story. Hoover (Dylan Baker) and George Wallace (a smarmy Tim Roth) show up making atrociously racist statements while scheming against King, but the real antagonist of the film seems to be the morbid sense of bigotry that lurks within all of us. The notion that we are the real problem here; (not legislation, politics, or protests, tough these are all key factors), is perhaps the most sobering notion of all, even as the film packs it's own emotional wallop through scenes of unspeakable racism. To this last point, though DuVernay is certainly capable of crafting sequences of raw power, there are a few directorial flourishes here that offset some of her more incisive choices. For one thing, though Oprah Winfrey is certainly a good actor, her presence in many scenes is jarring; particularly an arty shot where DuVernay straps a camera to her chest as she falls dramatically to the ground during a skirmish. Perhaps it's simply a measure of Oprah's producing credit, but there's really no reason why another unknown actor could not have successfully played her role. Additionally, DuVernay's use of extreme slow-motion during moments of brutal violence, and in one case a rather shocking death scene, feels out of place within the framework of this type of film. Perhaps a more stripped-down approach to the violence would have been more effective, leaving us in a state of disbelief at the horror of such incidents rather than drawing attention to the filmmaking.
Still, despite these minor quibbles (as well as having no other strong female roles aside from Ejogo's Coretta), there's little doubt that Selma works both emotionally and thematically. It's a work of immense passion and uncommon intelligence, giving us a flesh and blood Martin Luther King Jr. while turning our thoughts toward the larger context. Talking about race is a complex issue, and DuVernay's politically astute film understands the many hurdles we still face in terms of gaining equality in America, and that alone should be championed.