A month ago, the TIFF Bell Lightbox held a special early screening of Selma which was followed by a special and insightful Q&A with director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo. Selma is slowly gaining traction at the theatres, as its being boosted by some award coverage, high critical praise, Oprah’s name attached as a producer and Brad Pitt’s Plan B backing the film. I’m hopping in to give my two cents about this brilliant film and hopefully convince you to drive out and see it. Centered on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quest to bring equal voting rights to America, Selma is a beautifully crafted historical retelling and semi-biopic whose underlying themes are poignant and more relevant than ever.
Filmmakers who may have considered bringing Dr.King’s story to the big screen likely found hefty obstacles in the sizeable weight to his career or determining the right story to tell; as far as I am aware, there are no major studio films with MLK as the central subject. In the case of Selma, the formula is just right; a fine-tuned balance of storytelling on the flawed civil rights leader, strategist, husband and father as well as a well-rounded tale of one of the biggest marks in civil progress in American history. It’s this streamlined approach (authored by DuVernay and Paul Webb , a British screenwriter whose credits lie in theatre and rewrites on Spielberg’s Lincoln) that helps Selma avoid a lot of the tropes of these types of films. Instead of glazing over the life and times of Dr.King, Webb really hones in on the events that occurred in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Washington’s reactions and a snapshot of the man behind the movement at that time.
When the film first introduces Martin (David Oyelowo, The Butler, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), he is in Sweden receiving his Nobel Peace Prize. Oyelowo is striking from the get-go; his presence, articulation and grasp of Martin’s historical importance shine in an intimate moment with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: Anarchy, Sparkle). The majority of people who watch this film likely experienced Dr.King in a classroom setting and are familiar with his infamous speaking ability. Oyelowo does a fantastic job at mirroring it, convincingly instilling the same fierceness, strength and hope that Dr.King conveyed in his speeches through his renditions.
After meeting with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton, The Grand Budapest Hotel), who fails to prioritize the matter of equal voting rights, Dr.King and his supporters decide to root their next round of voting campaigns in Selma, Alabama. There, Dr.King faces personal conflicts and state political obstacles amidst the organization of a series of peaceful marches in hopes of passing the Voting Rights Act, but attempts to overcome them with the assistance of local, pro vote equality political, religious and social collectives.
Oyelowo exceeds expectations by bringing justice to his memory and also delivering a collection of new insights that characterizes him beyond his public face. His calculations and consciousness involved in orchestrating an organized movement, interacting with his supporters, rallying media attention and negotiating with politicians reveals King as a deeply invested political strategist, which plays incredibly well against the brilliant Wilkinson. But the most humanizing moment comes in a conversation with Coretta, which causes King to pull away from the Selma campaign, showcasing a conflicted individual who didn’t always put the movement above his actual life. Ejogo needs to be credited for her emotional performance here, one that I wish I could have seen more of over the course of the film.
Oyelowo is certainly one piece to Selma‘s successful equation; his performance is easily one of the best of this year’s crop. However, there is a lot of credit due to DuVernay and her team’s treatment of the actual movement itself. They never shied away from the verbal, physical and political abuse and instead drew upon the universal effects of the civil rights movement, from personal mourning to human cruelty to the ramifications felt by fellow citizens across America. In this sense, Selma is well-rounded in its tales of the ramifications of the protests, demonstrating the immeasurable effects it had on families and individuals who fought so hard for change. DuVernay chose to represent these moments in dynamically creative ways that have an incredible visual and emotional impact throughout the film in both big and small moments. There is one, however, that particularly stands out.
The scene where the first march from Selma to Montgomery takes place is chillingly reminiscent of recent civil protests and rallies in the United States. As volunteers peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus bridge (which was filmed on the actual bridge itself), they meet state-commissioned troops who enact violent measures to prevent the protest from moving forward. There is tear gas, slow-motion shots (a commonly used technique in the film) of volunteers being slammed into the pavement and beaten as others run, a soulful song playing in the background; it’s completely haunting, but also speaks to viewers of DuVernay’s ability to transform this historical event into art that evokes a deep reflection of America’s past and the current socio-political climate.
DuVernay previously garnered attention for her work as the director of Middle of Nowhere, which also starred David Oyelowo. She received a great deal of critical praise alongside the U.S. Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the 2012 film. I haven’t seen it, but I’m certainly inclined to now, because DuVernay has led her entire production team and cast to execute a film that feels like an invigorating breath of fresh air. It is great to see this type of talent emerge in cinema and for a director who is so early in her career, her potential is limitless. This work makes me excited to go to the movies.
Selma is powerful. It is tragic. It is beautiful. Rapper Common, who stars in the film and is featured on the film’s Golden Globe award-winning track “Glory“, best described the film’s impact by saying, “Selma has awakened my humanity. Selma is now.”
Selma is out in theatres now.