Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Renee Toussaint, Wendell Pierce, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Strong, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Martin Sheen
Directed by Ava DuVernay
For years, I've made note of how much I hate the film genre of the "biopic," but over the past few years, I've grown to appreciate what such flicks bring to the table in terms of opening my eyes to the intricacies of historical events that may have not necessarily flown under my radar, but perhaps been lower key in my mind than they probably should have been. In 2014 alone, I've been treated to two very good stand-outs in the genre with The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Selma joins that list.
Smartly detailing only a small segment of his life, Selma focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s attempted 1965 fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in order to raise awareness of that state government's refusal to give black Americans the right to vote. Rather than introduce us to Mr. King via childhood anecdotes or college shenanigans, director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb sink us right into the action with King (played strongly and confidently by David Oyelowo) trying to persuade President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a Voter's Rights Act that would allow all Americans to be allowed to register to vote without harassment from government officials. When Johnson denies that request, King decides that he must continue on his mission of peaceful, nonviolent protest in order to get his point to the American people since his government was not assisting in providing this basic human right.
The film very shrewdly shows that King was cunningly media-savvy, knowing that in order for him to succeed, he needed to have cameras and reporters present. While he respected the work that some lesser black community organizations were doing to push voting bills into place, King knew that they would fail simply because they were "too small." This sly intelligence and insight into this brilliant man's mind was interesting to see unfold. Credit must also be given to the fact that the film doesn't present King as a saint as his well-known infidelities are touched upon more than once.
David Oyelowo takes on the unenviable task of embodying Mr. King -- a man whose recorded and televised speeches are some of the most well-known in American history. Oyelowo is hugely successful at bringing the civil rights' leader's diction, mannerisms, strength, humility, and intelligence to the screen. Oyelowo is moving in the film's quiet moments, yet powerfully rousing as the rather ingenious orator that King was. Oyelowo is buoyed by a strong supporting cast that weave in and out of the tale, including a nice turn from Carmen Ejogo as King's put-upon wife Coretta. Tom Wilkinson as a headstrong (less-than-eloquent) president provides a nice counterpoint to King's/Oyelowo's passionate fervor. (Also interesting to note -- Democrats weren't exactly kosher with the African American community getting the right to vote -- yet us Republicans are constantly paraded around as the more "racist" party.) Particularly moving is an incredibly strong small role by Henry G. Sanders as the grandfather of a young man killed in cold blood by an Alabama police officer. Sanders has very few scenes, but I found him riveting and emotionally powerful whenever he was onscreen.
On the downside, the film felt a little longer than its two hour running time and I found myself checking the watch a few times. However, I certainly was never bored. Perhaps more than any other film I've seen this year, I came away from the theater thinking about how our society needs someone powerful like Martin Luther King, Jr., today. The Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world are only out for themselves despite what they may have you believe. While I mentioned King's utilization of the media above, Sharpton and Jackson manipulate the media for their own time in the spotlight. King used the press for the betterment of the people.
The film certainly comes along at a pivotal time in our culture what with the Ferguson fiasco. No matter where your opinion may fall on that spectrum, what this film showed me was that our society now doesn't have the voice that Martin Luther King, Jr., provided in the 1960s. (I always thought Bill Cosby could maybe have been that voice -- but we all know where that ended up now.) In that way, Selma made me quite sad for our current state of affairs. King didn't pit society in a black-against-white type way, whereas nowadays that's the way everything is presented whenever "race" is involved. King knew that a "race war" wouldn't solve any problems -- unity was needed, not race baiting.
Kudos to the relatively new-to-the-scene Ava DuVernay who has crafted a pic that resonates. She doesn't necessarily pull out any tricks (and when she does, they sometimes fall flat -- like a slow-motion fight scene involving police officers and actress Oprah Winfrey), but she creates a impact showcasing the courage of not only Dr. King, but the many black and white Americans who quite literally joined hands with him to create change. There's power in these images DuVernay brings to the screen -- the opening shot of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing starts things off with such an impact that I was taken aback (in a good way) by the way Ms. Duvernay decides to present things -- and there's absolutely something to be said for being able to create something that can carry such weight.
The RyMickey Rating: B+