If there is something that we can attest to in our country, it’s that we worship our heroes far too easily. We deify them, place them on pedestals and forget that they are just men and women. Yes, they may have accomplished godly feats but they are no more mortal, or need any less support, than you and I. This is something that becomes abundantly clear in director Ava DuVernay’s powerful Selma, especially as a result of a fantastically nuanced and believable performance by star David Oyelowo as late US Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we follow him through some of the most important days in his life.
Those days being in 1965, during the charged racial and political standoff in the small town of Selma, Alabama, engineered by King and his confidantes to pressurize US President Lyndon Johnson (played by a crackling Tom Wilkinson) into passing a bill in Congress that removes the unfair voter registration restrictions placed on black citizens at the time.
Throughout this tale we get to glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, of this cultural icon. Oyelowo nails Dr. King’s well-documented and iconic speech patterns and mannerisms perfectly, but there’s much more to the man than just inspirational oration. And it’s here where the British born Oyelowo excels as he offers us a fully realized, emotionally and spiritually troubled leader and husband. That last matrimonial bit is especially true as DuVernay never flinches away from all his failings as a husband, and thanks to Oyelow’s comprehensive performance, these foibles actually help to just humanize the character instead of lessening him.
But despite the focus of this review thus far and how this movie is being billed as a biopic, this is not the Martin Luther King Jr. story – we actually meet Dr. King well into his career as he is about to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, and we leave this tale well before we even get to his famous “I have a dream” speech. Oyelowo might lead this piece – and lead it amazingly – but he’s not the only player in the world-changing drama that played out during those fateful events in a small town in the still very segregated South of America.
DuVernay fills out the supporting cast with actors and actresses who all rise to and often exceed the challenge of the material, including Oprah Winfrey, who plays infamous activist Annie Lee Cooper as well as pulling producer duties on the film. Tim Roth though is especially spectacular as the segregationist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, creating a snarling, drawling “villain” that you can’t take your eyes off. As James Forman and John Lewis, the young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who take issue with some of Dr. King’s methods, Trai Byers and Stephan James also turn in fiery performances.
And the script, which DuVernay co-wrote with Paul Webb, constantly ensures that all these figures get their respective moments while never leaving any of them underdeveloped. And it just bristles with energy – both emotional and accelerative – as it goes through these scenes. There has been some controversy though for the way DuVernay and Webb’s script takes liberties with historical facts to overly vilify President Johnson and others to a degree, but this type of massaging of history for dramatic effect has unfortunately become par for the course. It can be given some leeway here though, when the “dramatic effect” is as dramatically effective as Selma.
DuVernay’s past as a documentarian comes through strong as she overlays government transcripts, sometimes coldly shocking in their implications, on the human drama unfolding on-screen, adding an additional real-world horror to proceedings. Directing with a supremely controlled hand that makes very little feel extraneous or sloppily put together, she ensures an underlying intensity in every scene whether it be the gut-turning violence inflicted on the innocent or a verbal melee between King and Johnson.
Most impressively, DuVernay doesn’t let the film devolve into overly emotional, romanticized treacle, as such stories are often at risk of becoming. And while it can be argued that there is a fair bit of flag-waving politicizing going on (which should not exactly be unexpected given the content of the film), it never feels wholly insulting or blunt in its approach. At its core, this may be a film of the heart, but it deftly keeps its head in the game.
While Selma is only DuVernay’s third feature film – and the first one of this size and caliber – it has clearly marked her as a director to keep an eye on. Led by a towering turn from David Oyelowo (supported by a host of talented performers), and boasting some crisp writing and masterful direction, it is a must-see film, not only for its potent human drama or even its awards potential, but also for being a poignant and tragic reminder (especially for us South Africans) of how far we still are from realizing Dr Martin Luther King’s dream.
Last Updated: February 4, 2015