Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (US); February 6th, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama; History
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
Carrying on the awards-fetching tradition that tends to follow flicks of biographical and historical heritage (a tradition particularly in vogue at this year’s Oscars) is Selma. We all know the argument by now: ‘the only reason this weighty film about that important figure doing those serious things has been made is purely to fill the brazen palms of those involved with golden statuettes’. As a general rule I don’t really toe that line. There are too many external factors that’d have to align for a filmmaker to predict prizes before even rolling a camera, and then successfully follow through with that prediction. Oscar bait. It’s a bit of a nonsense assumption anyway. Selma is a film first and foremost, about struggle and perseverance and dignity.
Movies aren’t made to be awarded then, but when the turn of the year approaches and the air begins to smell that bit more Weinsteiny, it’s still an exciting time for cinephiles the world over. And it can be a kick in the teeth when evidently deserving performances aren’t given at least a nod of appreciation by those all-knowing folks in Hollywood. David Oyelowo’s shunning by the Academy is as bewildering as it is unfair on the Brit. He plays Martin Luther King, Jr., minister and activist at the helm of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the middle of last century.
Director Ava DuVernay’s film centres on Dr. King and his collaborative attempt alongside other SCLC members to gain voting rights for black US citizens in the 1960s. As such, success hinges upon how effectively Oyelowo embodies the famous fellow. In some ways, playing a prolific figure such as King might be easier because his presence has continued to circulate in some form for so many years and his mannerisms and tones therefore exist in great volume, essentially forming a vault of primary sources for the actor to refer to. Having said that, there’s very little room for error because the man is so recognisable — if you’re watching Selma, you’re probably pretty well-versed in the humanitarian’s past. The audience knows King and Oyelowo has to convince, not after 30 minutes or 60 minutes but after 10 seconds, that he is King.
Goodness me, he convinces. Oyelowo’s portrayal is very similar to Eddie Redmayne’s manifestation as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, not because the roles reflect each other in too many ways but because each actor completely dissolves into the persona he is playing. The magnetic charisma is there, shining through particularly during speeches delivered with power and precision, but Oyelowo also conveys a vulnerability in King that humanises the god-like leader. Moments of self-doubt creep in and harness his stubbornness; this unusually burdened appearance can be seen in a prison cell conversation or an emotional debate between husband and wife.
At this point it’s also worth noting some really solid work done by Oyelowo’s supporting cast, namely Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson. King and Coretta’s relationship is frosty when we meet them, the latter certainly an admirer of her husband’s moral graft but not as keen on any potentially nasty consequences. “I don’t joke about that”, she says after he quips about dying in the line of protest. Ejogo’s Coretta is strong-willed but clearly at odds with the viable threat posed to her family.
On the other hand, King’s combative rapport with the US head of state is driven by ethical politics. Wilkinson plays the President with that familiar governmental defensiveness — sympathetic to a degree but only really in favour of King because he’s not “one of those Malcolm X types”. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch plays him in one short scene) as the clash in styles between he and his activist colleague could’ve added another layer to the film’s fairly cut-and-dry morality. Henry G. Sanders’ heartbreaking turn as a pained grandfather is as affecting as anything else on screen. Unfortunately Tim Roth hams it up a too much as the Governor of Alabama, his performance lacking somewhat in authenticity when pitted up against the others.
As alluded to previously, there are a few heavyweight vocal diatribes laced throughout the film but DuVernay smartly avoids employing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead the material is fresher and Oyelowo is afforded the chance to inject less high profile dialogues with his own portentous verve. Thus there’s never a preachy air but rather a story bound by the bluntness of immorality, one that holds a mirror up against an inconceivable blotch on our history whilst also hauling shocking relevance today.
Despite the obvious humanity failure on display, DuVernay manages to avoid the gloominess of the subject and instead directs with spirit. A bubbling, soulful soundtrack compiled by Jason Moran — which reminded me of a Coen/T-Bone Burnett concoction, oddly — gives energy to proceedings. This vibrant approach means when the Selma to Montgomery protest marches from which the film pivots occur, their impact is heightened. The notorious Bloody Sunday walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is harrowing in its depiction but also sublimely executed; raw brutality is interspersed with a white reporter’s increasingly disturbed commentary and reactions of abhorrence from around America brought on by television broadcasts.
It might’ve been largely overlooked by awards shows but Selma isn’t a film that should be ignored by those who love accomplished filmmaking. Indeed, Ava DeVernay’s moving dramatisation of oppression in society fifty years ago reaffirms a life lesson that some are failing to abide by even in 2015. For that reason alone Selma is a film worth seeing.