There are certain people and events throughout history that are so obviously in need of a cinematic treatment, that their absence from the big screen leaves audiences wondering what on earth took so long. Such is the case with the one of the most recognizable and referenced figures in Western society, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This larger than life individual whose life and accomplishments are far too grand for a simple studio feature film, has luckily never been subjected to an impoverished movie. Instead, Dr. King is assimilated as a key figure in Ava DeVernay’s re-telling of the events in Selma, Alabama. DeVernay illustrates the movement organized by Dr. King which brought to light the fact that although African American’s (predominantly in the South) had the constitutional right to vote, they had not seen a registered vote cast for over sixty years. Just like the events that unfolded throughout the worldwide broadcasting of Bloody Sunday, the march in Selma was a fair catalyst to the establishment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a bill that gave all Americans equal opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.
It is without a doubt that MLK is an influential figure who sadly suffered the same tragic fate of other great American figures including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. This doom alone could easily make for an explosive and easily appealing studio film for large audiences. Though, what detaches Selma from other biopics and sets it up amongst the greats, like Steven Speilberg’s recent Lincoln, is its focus on a specific period in time; allowing the events and characters to unfold in fine cinematic fashion around these prevalent historical shifts on the world. Biopics may not be the go-to genre for spoilers, twist-endings, and large box-offices, but movies like Selma reaffirm the fine tailored approach of filmmakers looking to retell the milestones of world history and offer exceptional character insight on the visionaries we have immortalized.
Selma may seem too daunting to many, serving more of a history lesson with real violent historical events–that is Bloody Sunday, than an entertaining piece of film discouraging potential viewers. Instead, the film chronicles both the violent and peaceful moments of the period with complete eloquence and patience, allowing Selma to become one of the most vivid and colourful history lessons we have seen on screen in a long time. More than anything, Selma depicts an important piece of American history for a time that needs reaffirmed confidence and faith in the goodness and changes people are willing to make everyday.
Timely in its fashion for the current events plaguing the United States today, the film is a heavy-handed, dramatic and necessary piece of cinematic awareness for a country whose civil views have not changed much for almost fifty years. Scarily mimicking the events of Ferguson, Mo. and the current issues circling America, Selma becomes a contemporary mandatory viewing for all people–of all race and colour.
Director DuVernay, approaches a monumental cinematic achievement with many obstacles. Wishes of Dr. King’s kin that DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb not incorporate any original speeches left the film’s representation of the most pivotal character with the potential lack of authenticity.
Overcoming this, DuVernay and Webb stray away from the monumental “I Have A Dream” speech, as well as the obvious tragedy of Dr.King’s assassination, instead displaying a relatable leader with humanistic flaws: characteristics many would otherwise be oblivious to. On top of the film’s apparent issues of gaining rights from Dr. King’s family (similar to All Is By My Side and the music of Jimi Hendrix), the film also endured a strenuous identity crisis, with the possibility of being helmed by the likes of; Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Spike Lee, Paul Haggis, Stephen Frears (attached with Oyelowo to star), and Lee Daniels fresh off of his other civil rights film The Butler. Yet, easily foreseeable by her previous delicate work I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, no one seems more qualified or destined to bring life to the events of Selma than DuVernay; a-once resident of Alabama herself and a director whose voice and view of the eventful day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge changed the United States and its people forever.
Never constraining itself to the obvious location, Selma also offers insight to the importance of ego and its development into its own character in the lives of the Selma marchers. Shutting great men down permanently and unequivocally through scenes of extreme prejudice, racism and struggle, characters such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), CIA founder J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) give depth to the many facets of politics and the agendas of men throughout that time, and their priorities to the American people. Seeing such amazing talent in one of the best ensemble casts of the year, Dr.King’s interactions with elite politicians (most specifically those with Wilkinson, who offers some of his best recent work since Michael Clayton) shines.
Yet, no matter how big the name or actor is, some of the best scenes of the film are those with the less recognizable figures during the civil rights movement; including a scene between a grieving Cager Lee Jackson played by Henry G. Sanders (father of the slain Jimmi Lee Jackson played by Short Term 12’s Keith Stanfield) as well as a quietly insightful yet tremendously uplifting scene between Dr.King and a then John Lewis (played by star-in-the-making Toronto native Stephan James).
If you haven’t already noticed, one of the many strengths of Selma is its cast, and like any good revolution or movement, you need a good leader. That being said, the film could not have found a better Dr.King than the one we saw in David Oyelowo. Despite his heavy English accent and Nigerian roots, Oyelowo transcends himself–mind, body and voice–into the charismatic Dr.King, managing to emulate a man whose words and presence demand notice. Oyelowo deserves praise for his fine performance of Dr.King. In both his loudest victories and quiet failures, Oyelowo triumphs victorious in his portrayal. Adopting the same method acting technique as the great Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, Oyelowo makes a tremendous effort to genuinely depict the man that Dr.King was, rather than the image we’ve come to know. Oyelowo’s scenes of awkward silence, stillness and empathy shows depth far beyond the loud words of his sermons and preachings. If it wasn’t for Eddie Redmayne’s alter world transformation as Stephen Hawking’s in The Theory of Everything, I would have announced Oyelowo as the clear frontrunner in this year’s acting category. Yet, always taking the sidelines in so many films, Selma will surely be remembered as this fine actor’s breakout role that will surely award him accolades throughout his career.
Surrounded by greatness and immense talent, one of the many obvious victories of Selma is director DuVernay’s ability to make the film feel like an intimate, independently made biopic, despite producing the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt. DuVernay approaches Dr.King and his greatness not by the obvious facts of his apparent non-violent approach, but by his intelligent and strategic tactics to peacefully incite change. Selma shows a different side of the man we know as Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr–one who waited for the right opportunity to strike, negotiate, demonstrate and resist to those higher in political power through reason and deep thought.
Selma is an innovative and creative feature for DuVernay who tackles the civil rights movement the same way in which it began, with a grassroots technique from the bottom up. Opting for talent rather than exposure, DuVernay only makes her film as good as the people involved with it, including; cinematographer Bradford Young who sheds immense colour to a very black and white point in history; actors Stephan James and Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) who elevate subtle tragedy and sadness without hesitation or over acting; and John Legend and Common, who sing the closing credits as a protest anthem not only for the film, but for a contemporary American society in desperate need of one.
I had a dream…that one day, an MLK biopic would come and sweep the rug from under me, and Selma did just that. Thanks to its piercing accuracy of Dr. King’s views of non-violence and its exhausted examination of an America of 1965, that does not seem too far from the America of today, the film is a self-reflexive piece of Americans brave and free. Selma is a film that will overcome many of its preconceived notions of the man, myth and greatness that was Martin Luther King without the preachy and over-dramtic expectations of a studio film, and all we can say to that is…AMEN.
Night Film Reviews: 9 Out of 10 Stars.
Was Selma a masterpiece or complete bloody mess? Historical in only the events it depicts or sure to leave a mark historically on cinema itself? Is Ava DuVernay’s biopic the best of the year? Is David Oyelowo at the top of his game? Leave all your thoughts and comments below.