David Oyelowo Shines as MLK
Review by Daniel Rester
Selma, written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVerney, is a vivid and vital piece of American filmmaking. Though it tells of a story about civil rights and prejudice that took place fifty years ago, the film holds relevance in showing how some things changed and other things haven’t in ways. With the recent events in Ferguson and the even more recent controversial emails leaked at Sony, there is still much debate when it comes to the subject of race in America. Selma is the type of film that will get people talking more about such a topic, hence its importance.
Webb’s screenplay wisely covers only a small portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life instead of resorting to full-life biopic mode. The story covers the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, where King (David Oyelowo), James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), John Lewis (Stephen James), and more led African Americans and others in non-violent protest in Alabama. King and company’s goal was to get the attention of Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and especially President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), stressing that Johnson needed to act quickly for the voting rights of Americans.
By only focusing on a certain time period in King’s life, Selma feels tight and focused. It’s refreshing to get a film about a major figure without going through the usual character tropes and instead looking at the overall situation. Webb’s script delivers with maximum impact in this particular way, looking at how a particular time and place affected the many involved. His writing is populated with many characters that all feel as if they are servicing the story, though some are developed far more than others.
The best-developed character is King, exceptionally played by Oyelowo. Webb, DuVerney, and Oyelowo establish King as the strong leader he was, but they don’t just put him on a pedestal. The creative team shows that King had his flaws and fears as well, making him far more interesting to watch as a character than if he was just deified.
James and Wilkinson have great moments as far as the supporting players go, as does Carmen Ejogo as Coretta (King’s wife, who Ejogo also played in the television film Boycott (2001)). Only the casting of Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in bit parts comes off as a bit distracting, while Oprah Winfrey and Giovanni Ribisi fit in well in their small roles. The cast is notable on a whole, but Oyelowo is the anchor that holds everything when it comes down to it.
The dialogue — thankfully — keeps the speechifying to a minimum, instead putting interest on the behind-the-doors conversations between various characters about their feelings and struggles. Some of Webb’s words are obvious and exposition-heavy at times, but the majority of the time the dialogue feels natural and adds to the characters smoothly. One particular monologue Coretta has about her husband’s possible infidelity is especially powerful.
DuVerney handles Selma with a sure hand. She and cinematographer Bradford Young capture the costumes and period details well while using a confident mix of wide shots, tracking shots, etc. throughout. A scene involving an explosion of violence from the police on a bridge is among the most intense scenes of the past few years. DuVerney and her team deserve credit for capturing such a scene, and the others in the film, in an effectively unsettling and authentic manner.
Editor Spencer Averick gives Selma a beautiful form with his cuts, while Jason Moran’s music uses a welcome variety of orchestrations and artist tracks. There are some occasional informative subtitles that pop up with a typewriter noise that feel completely unnecessary, but for the most part the content and form all comes across as professionally handled. The ending result of DuVerney and the others’ work allows for a piece that is all at once entertaining, thought-provoking, and gut-punching.
Selma is not a masterpiece, but it’s a damn great historical film. Some dialogue, screen text use, supporting character, and casting decisions mar the film slightly, but it still rises as an impressive achievement. I’m glad a story about King FINALLY made it to the big screen in the form of a narrative feature, and it’s even more satisfying to say that the result is a must-see movie.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of real drama and violence).
Runtime: 2 hours and 2 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: December 25th, 2014 (limited); January 9th, 2015 (wide).