Review: Selma


Calling Ava DuVernay’s Selma a “Martin Luther King Jr. biopic” is a little misguided. Selma has Dr. King as the its central figure, but the story focuses on a three month period in 1965 when Dr King urged President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act. The film opens with King (David Oyelowo) meeting with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) about the next step after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King is vocal that Negroes need the right to vote without any obstruction from local government or law enforcement. After Johnson gives him a bunch of political lip service, King and his group are forced to head to Selma, Alabama to bring attention with non-violent marches.

King’s plan will hopefully draw the ire of the Alabama State Troopers and that will bring national attention to a big issue in a small town. With all eyes on Selma, Johnson will be forced to make the Voting Rights Act a top priority. If you’ve seen DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere you know she’s skillful at conveying various emotions in her projects. There are times in Selma when you’ll laugh; there are times when you’ll cry; there are times when you’ll be angry. But there isn’t a time during the 128 mins that won’t fill you with emotion – that’s what makes DuVernay one of Hollywood’s rising stars. With the help of writer Paul Webb, she’s put together a touching masterpiece unlike anything we’ve seen in the past few years. Selma is swarming with good performances – Tim Roth as George Wallace, Wendell Pierce as Reverend Hosea, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (for the 2nd time. See 2001’s Boycott) – but two performances stood out to me.

Now, before I get Oyelowo’s Oscar worthy performance I’d like mention a young actor by the name of Keith Stanfield. He plays Jimmie Lee Jackson, a protestor who has a run-in with an Alabama State Trooper. Stanfield has a handful of lines, but wears all the emotion of Jimmie Lee on his face. You can almost hear the anger, the pride, and the fear by just looking at Stanfield’s face. It’s hard to take your eyes off him. This kid is a star waiting to breakout. I thought so when I saw him in 2013’s Short Term 12 and I’m an even bigger believer now.

At this point, what hasn’t been said about Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King? To sum it up in one word: Breathtaking.  If there were questions about Oyelowo being a leading man, they’ve been answered emphatically. He’s another great British actor in the New British Invasion. First they came for our superheroes, then our television shows, and now they’re taking our leaders. The Brits are taking over our entertainment and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It’s not the usual Dr. King voice inflections or any verbal cue that drives home Oyelowo’s impersonation. He’s committed to all of King’s non-verbal body langue. Everything from the way King smiled to the way he looked at his wife feels authentic. Thankfully Oyelowo saved his best King impressions for those impassioned speeches. Those scenes are incredible. They’ll be a lot of comparisons to Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X (1992), and rightfully so. Let’s hope the outcome on Oscar night isn’t the same.

There’s an amazing scene when Coretta confronts Martin. It’s not Martin the leader or Martin the preacher in that scene. It’s Coretta talking to her husband. Everything about what King means to the country is understated and you’re watching a husband and wife work through their problems. Even with history at his doorstep, King was a husband and a father first.

Selma is a beautiful movie for a lot of reasons. It’s not a film that uses high school text books as a storyboard. It’s not a documentary style feature film. Selma unapologetically deals with the numerous issues during the Voting Rights Act. There was infighting. There were comprises. There was doubt. Nobody knew how the march from Selma was going to play out. Selma shows Dr. King as a flawed man and that everyone didn’t love him – both whites and blacks. Selma’s real beauty rests in its overall message – hope. Hope that a group of people can change the world.  A hope that was birthed in the 1960s but it’s the same hope we need today.

Grade: A