The acclaimed film Selma tells the gripping and moving true story of the pivotal moment in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic civil rights struggle – the 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to secure voting rights for African Americans. Starring British actor David Oyelowo (The Butler, A Most Violent Year) as Martin Luther King Jr. Alongside Tom Wilkinson Carmen Ejogo Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey the 2015 release of Selma celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passing of the voting rights act and this triumphant story of the power of the people.
Selma is an incredible achievement and among the many things you could praise it for, it perhaps works best as the bio-pic of Martin Luther King Jr. that we still haven’t had. I’ve always maintained that the best way to understand someone is to tell their story through one key event, not trying to encompass everything.
Selma only covers a few months towards the end of Dr. King’s 13 years working for civil rights and we find a man uneasy with his success, his statesman-like reputation, and how it reflects on the those he supports. He is aware of his potential fate and the strain that puts on his family; his wife Cloretta (Carmen Ejogo making the most of a limited role) speaks of death as a fog that surrounds them. While the film does not include his assassination, the knowledge that Dr. King pays that price adds an air of melancholy despite the glorious success of his achievement that started on the Edmund Pettus bridge. David Oyelowo’s under-stated performance is superb, convincing as both the calm leader everyone relies on and the human being, struggling to understand if he is doing the right thing. He lifts every scene he is in, even when the film occasionally stumbles and lacks focus in the first half (particularly the awkward tone of wire-tapping sub-titles).
There was much talk of Selma being snubbed by the Academy Awards. With just two nominations and one win (Original Song for Common and John Legend’s Glory) there was a notable lack of coverage for what seemed like an obvious choice. Reviews were almost all full of praise and it did have an air of importance, the sort suspicious cynics would have you unfairly believe is Oscar-bait. The Academy’s omission was certainly curious in any case, but in truth, Selma does have some minor flaws that take the wind out of its sails. Overall it lacks the consistency and, more importantly, the spark that made 12 Years a Slave distinctively special.
That’s understandable because it’s heart rightfully belongs on the historic Edmund Pettus bridge and until we’re on it, narratively speaking, Selma lacks focus, rushing to get to the march. It is far more complicated a story than that of persecution over race represented by good guys and bad guys. Set in 1964, America was becoming more self-aware of it’s shameful history and progress had been made in Civil Rights, just not very quickly where voting is concerned. Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson embodies America’s personality in a smartly judged role, trying to balance a past he is both ashamed of and sympathetic to, with an inevitable future that he at least believes in. In other words, of course black Americans should be able to vote without fear of discrimination and violence, but… well, it is Alabama, so maybe next year? A delay cannot be afforded though and the bridge comes to represent an emotional and Constitutional crossing as well as a physical one. It must be crossed now and the battle to do so is that of one in an on-going war. That’s exactly what it was, of course and the tension before the attempted crossing is palpable. The march itself is a powerful realisation of the struggle, though in-between the catalyst to action for both sides is some horrific violence that will make you wince.
It’s hard to comprehend that Martin Luther King Jr. had made such huge strides in a relatively short space of time, yet we can’t celebrate his legacy as purely historical. Recent events show that hate and ignorance continue, 50 years on from that historic crossing. Perhaps we’ll know true diversity has been properly recognised in art at least when a film such as this can be snubbed by an award ceremony because, despite it’s brilliance, it simply doesn’t quite measure up to other nominees. Instead, in 2015, there is still a niggling feeling of sinister motives. That isn’t fair on anyone, least of all this powerful film and those who made it.