Selma is one of the great emotional experiences of recent years; a fiercely powerful look at one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most triumphant victories. Perhaps even more interestingly, it peels back the layers of an icon and portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in a very human and, at times, fragile way. Director Ava DuVernay has brought history to life in ways seldom seen before, and it’s as starkly relevant now as it would have been fifty years ago.
The film takes place during a three-month stretch in 1965. Racial tensions are at all-time highs in the South, leading to many African-Americans being unable to vote. After the bombing of an African-American church that kills four young girls, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo) and his team get involved. They begin pressing President Johnson (Wilkinson) on the issue. Johnson wants to help, but considers the subject of tertiary priority. Always a non-violent protester, King arranges a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in trying to force the President’s hand. These actions resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ensuring equal voting rights for all.
Every scene of Selma emanates power and authenticity. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb hit the emotional apex of every injustice and victory, making the film an engrossing watch even when the resolution is known. The most interesting passages are of the behind-the-scenes variety. For all the good that King did, it came at the personal price of being stressed, tired, and in constant fear for his life. This particular time also took a toll on King’s wife, Coretta (Ejogo), as she received near-daily harassment and threatening phone calls. The relationship between King and Johnson is a cornerstone of the narrative. Johnson supports King’s movement but fears the backlash of taking too many actions too quickly. Their back-and-forth banter and King’s insistence on the issue yield several potent moments, none more so than when Johnson tells segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) that he won’t sit idly by and wind up on the same side of history as him.
David Oyelowo turns in the performance of his career – and the performance of 2014 – as King. Focused and intense, Oyelowo brings the legend to life with a very human portrayal of a man who endured much in the name of justice. Though none of the speeches in Selma are those actually delivered by King, DuVernay and Webb, with Oyelowo’s delivery, make any differences virtually undetectable. Oyelowo puts on a clinic in restrained ferocity, completely disappearing into the role. Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth all turn in strong supporting work as key players of this important time.
Selma is as engrossing and compelling a historical record as any that we’ve ever seen at the movies. By giving equal time to the real march and King’s life out of the spotlight, DuVernay has crafted a well-rounded, introspective experience. Selma will be a benchmark for years to come in American history classes and is as close as you can get to required viewing. Impassioned, sharp, and arresting throughout, Selma is one of the top five best films of 2014 and one of the greatest films about history ever made.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 127 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 (Limited) / January 9, 2015 (Wide)
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola