Selma is a 2014 historical drama film documenting the protest marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other prominent civil rights leaders of the times. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., the film has received critical praise both for the entire film and for the performance of its leading star, with many award nominations thrown its way. Since this is a blog that tends to focus on things that I like, you can probably guess that my opinion doesn’t differ too far away from that.
I believe the single strongest creative choice for this film was to not back it an autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Biopics that try to capture the entire life of a person can sometimes fall short, exchanging depth for breadth. Selma focuses on a single important event in the life of its main character and allows us to look into what is going on in Martin’s head at the time. While events like the CIA’s investigation into Martin’s life and the effects his life has on his family, all of the focus is on the protest marches. I really like this because I think MLK, Jr. would rather be remembered more for what his work helped to accomplish than for his winning personality.
Which is not to say that he doesn’t have one. David Oyelowo’s performance as the civil rights leader is easily the best thing about this movie. Oyelowo has said in interviews that he felt like God was pushing him to play the role, and that conviction is largely what sticks out about his performance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most gifted public speakers of the last century and having bits of his speeches to use in the script certainly helps, but if Oyelowo’s delivery wasn’t spot on it would have been hokey and a detriment to the film. When he is preaching it feels like preaching should feel; it is easy to believe what he is saying and to be moved by it. Oyelowo also does very well with some of the quieter scenes and says a lot with only his facial expressions. The fact that his performance was not recognized by the Academy Awards this season still baffles me.
Not all of the cast is able to hold up to David Oyelowo’s standard of excellence though. Actually, that’s a little too kind; most of the other actors are just there. Most are fine and functional, but when David isn’t on screen the film does seem to falter quite a bit. The only other performances I can distinctly recall are Tim Roth and Tom Wilkenson. Tim Roth is a treasure in my opinion, an actor who always elevates whatever he is in. Portraying a racist like George Wallace is not an easy role for anyone and I always have respect for people who are willing to sink their teeth into a role like that knowing that it could hurt their reputation to some viewers. I unfortunately remember Tom WIlkenson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson for negative reasons. Wilkenson is a fine actor and has had several roles that I have enjoyed, but this isn’t one of them.
While most characters other than Martin Luther King, Jr. are more functional than genuinely interesting, the film does succeed on other levels. It manages to avoid the traps that some of these types of films by not portraying its main character like a complete saint or trying to get too inspirational. It just feels raw and real and that’s infinitely more powerful than forced sentiment. One of the biggest reasons this mood is achieved is the score by Jason Moran, which allows the truly horrific moments in this film to resonate without distracting from the emotion of what is going on. On the other end of the music spectrum is “Glory”, a song by Common and John Legend that plays at the end credits which is absolutely spectacular and deserves all of the praise it can get.
Selma is a very good film that doesn’t quite reach greatness in the traditional film making sense. But it is an extremely important film, and is surprisingly the first theatrical film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its focus, which is really sad to me. This is a movie that I believe deserves to be watched and will probably hold up several years from now. It is definitely recommended both for being a good movie and for covering a topic that deserves more attention.