A powerful recreation of a key moment in the civil rights movement
The biggest surprise about Selma is that it's taken Hollywood this long to make a film about Martin Luther King.Thankfully the filmmakers have sensibly avoided trying to condense King's entire story into a single film. Instead they concentrate on a key period in his dramatic life; a specific campaign that was a turning point in the civil rights movement. The marches in Selma, Alabama were in support of black voters who were trying to register but being prevented by racist states in the South. It's shocking to think that such brutal inequality was still going on in America during the sixties but the film is very successful at making this recent history feel alive and vital.This is, in part, thanks to a very tight script that remains focused and even handed; although its treatment of President Lyndon Johnson is a little unfair - albeit for dramatic effect. It's also full of superb performances but particularly David Oyelowo, who embodies King both spiritually and physically. It's a remarkable transformation and, at times, you almost forget it's a performance. He's ably supported by Carmen Ejogo as King's wife Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as Johnson and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace.
It's strange that a film about recent American history should contain so many British actors but there's plenty of home-grown talent involved as well. The film was directed by Ava DuVernay and, as an African-American woman, she is a rarity amongst Hollywood directors. However it's good to see a film set during this period being helmed by someone other than Spike Lee or Oliver Stone and DuVernay does a wonderful job of handling both the intimate moments and the larger scenes of protest and, unfortunately, violence. There's an almost documentary feel to some of the protest scenes, so much so that when actual footage is shown at the end of the film you realise the accuracy of the recreations.
DuVernay co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Webb and as mentioned they do a wonderful job keeping the story focused and informed, whilst retaining the drama and power of the events. They use log book entries from FBI surveillance and wiretaps as a way of transitioning between scenes, which adds to the film's veracity. Their portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson has been criticised, he did more for civil rights in the US than anyone, but without his resistance the film would lose some dramatic momentum. The filmmakers also don't treat King as a saint, showing the calculating way that he wants the authorities to overreact in order to attract press attention and also touching on his extramarital affairs.
The film manages to make a difficult period in US history both immediate and relatable.
Although the film takes place between King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, there is still an air of impending doom hanging over the entire endeavour. It's as though he has already resigned himself to his inevitable appointment with an assassin's bullet. In fact he and his fellow activists often joke about dying for the cause, much to his wife's annoyance. The film makes very clear the real risks that they were taking and more than one person tragically dies during the course of film, whilst many others are injured.
It's strange that given the film's weighty subject matter it has been largely snubbed by the Oscars. Whilst the film did receive a Best Picture nod, the lack of other nominations in the big categories is in stark contrast to last year's 12 Years a Slave; despite Selma being a far more likeable film. It probably reflects the ethnic and gender bias within the Academy membership but a film this good and about such a serious subject usually picks up a hat full of Oscars. However regardless of what the Academy may think, Selma is an absolute triumph, packed full of interesting incidents and fascinating characters - don't miss it.
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