As the most visionary and influential leader of the American civil rights movement, one would assume that a film featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be as inspiring as the man himself. It’s an ambition that director Ava DuVarney is keen to undertake with Selma, and for the most part succeeds in doing so.
It is the mid-Sixties, and Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is preparing for one of his regular meetings with the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), at the White House. On this occasion, President Johnson is touting his “War on Poverty”, a series of initiatives designed to end financial and social hardship in America, hoping that his policies will gain the endorsement of King.
Instead of offering his unconditional support, as Johnson hoped he would, King raises the African-American suffrage with the President. He notes how African-Americans are being denied the right to vote via violence, intimidation and corruption in the southern states of America, despite it being legal for all U.S. citizens. While supportive of King and his ideals, Johnson dismisses the issue as one of lesser importance, saying that it will “have to wait”.
Frustrated, King takes his cause to Selma, Alabama, where a number of African-American residents are “ineligible” to vote. After a series of peaceful protests around the town – much to the displeasure of Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) – Dr. King and his followers organise an ill-fated march to the state’s capital, Montgomery, during which they are ambushed by police and state troopers, among others.
While Dr. King is not the focus for the entirety of Selma, he remains the film’s central protagonist, and is wonderfully portrayed by David Oyelowo. It’s a very powerful performance from the British actor, with his rousingly-delivered speeches bringing the performance to life, and some tender moments between him and King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) providing him with even more humanity. In fact, so powerful is Oyelowo’s performance that the rest of Selma seems dull by comparison.
As unfair as that assertion may be, there’s no denying that Selma is a slow, elongated affair that’s certainly in no hurry to tell its story, and could easily be shortened in places. In a sense, the film’s pacing is a metaphor for the civil rights movement itself – a drawn-out process that could have been resolved far sooner than what it was. And when it comes to delivering the messages of that same movement, Selma doesn’t falter.
The many instances of violence in this picture are such an example. All at once, these scenes are bold, raw, realistic and confronting to watch; they depict characters being bloodily beaten by folks yelling racial slurs, neither being able to retaliate nor defend themselves. When juxtaposed with this brutality and aggression, it becomes easy to see why so many were drawn to King and his non-violent movement, in turn leading the audience to become sympathetic to his struggle.
One of the more interesting aspects of Selma is its highlighting of the role outsiders played in aiding King’s cause. For instance, it provides speaking roles to two Anglo-Americans who participated in the Selma protests – Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs) and Pastor James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) – and explains what became of them after they participated in the rallies. It’s touches like this that remind people how to overcome injustice – not by dividing people, but by bringing them together.
Although it is overly long, the presence of David Oyelowo ensures that Selma is far from a boring affair. With his moving performance, and some daring story-telling, the film is able to promote the ideals for which Dr. King strived long and hard for, while also relating it to the struggles America continues to face today.
This film was previously reviewed for YO Bendigo on March 31st, 2015.