February 6, 2015 Leave a comment
While in Europe civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is free to receive the Nobel Peace Prize with the respect of his peers and to rapturous applause, back home in America he would still struggle to register as a voter. To this end, and following a sickening attack on four young churchgoers in Selma, Alabama, Dr King returned to the States with voting rights in his sights. The plan is to stage a peaceful march to the registration office, but when his protest ends in violence and prompts a retaliatory response at a later night march King realises that he is going to think bigger. Unable to count on the President (Tom Wilkinson), he uses the media to raise the profile of his cause, and when an attempt to march to the State capital ends in further brutality it is this time caught on film for the whole country to see. No longer able to ignore what is happening, supporters — black and white — begin to amass in Selma.
With the recent events in Ferguson demonstrating that despite the progress that has undoubtedly been made since King’s day injustice and inequality are still rife in at least some of the United States of America, Ava DuVernay’s Selma still manages to be timely and urgent even fifty years after the fact. In many ways the man in question has since been reduced to a harmless soundbite, and though most people are able to recite his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from 1963 they would be hard-pressed to recount any more information on one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. Hopefully this film should change that, not simply adding the Selma to Montgomery marches to his pop-culture profile but stoking a deeper interest in the man behind the movement.
Oyelowo is exceptional as King, and together with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln shows that Brits have not only conquered the American superhero genre but have now also infiltrated the nation’s pantheon of real-life heroes too. Charismatic and compelling but compromised and complex, this is King outside of his ideological dreamscape. His family is under threat, his supporters are being routinely beaten and killed, and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference is not just unwelcome in the eyes of Governor of Alabama George Wallace (Tim Roth) but sections of the native Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee too, even though they’re ultimately working towards the same goal. Many of the most powerful scenes aren’t rooted in victory at all but pain: as King consoles the father of the late Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), as he bears witness to the first fateful Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing from afar, and has he confesses a string of infidelities to his unerringly faithful wife (an excellent Carmen Ejogo).
It’s a frustrating and often infuriating watch, and King’s indignation and disbelief at the establishment’s conceitedness and complacency is matched only by your own. Roth is perfectly cast as Wallace, actor having long since mastered the contemptible sneer, while Dylan Baker is just squirm-inducing as an unusually reptilian J Edgar Hoover. It’s Wilkinson who will really leave you frothing, and as convincing as the actor is as Lyndon B Johnson it’s hard not to be shocked by or disappointed in that nice old man from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, particularly given his outspoken condemnation of slavery in last year’s Belle. The entire cast is on top form, from established talents like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr to equally impressive turns from talk show host Oprah and rapper Common. As much of the ensemble prepare for their final march on Montgomery it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment, and like Belle or even Pride there is a triumph and joy in seeing historic injustices being overturned that is unlike anything else in cinema. As the latter reminds us in his rap over the end credits, however, the battle may be over but the war is still far from won.
A handsome and humbling period piece with untold present day relevance, Selma is one of the most important releases of the year. It’s also incredibly potent and powerful, and a crying shame that neither DuVernay or Oyewolo have been adequately recognised for their efforts.