Had “Selma” been released a number of years ago, people would probably just see it as another movie which chronicles a historical moment which has long since passed us by. But with all the upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri where violence against people of color is increasing substantially and the Voting Rights Act having taken a very unnecessary hit, this movie could not be timelier. What we see in “Selma” now feels like prologue as the fight for equal rights continues on to this very day. By now we should very well know we’re not living in a post-racial society.
“Selma” takes us back to the year 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and several others led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to obtain equal voting rights for African Americans. It was tough times indeed as Dr. King faces an uphill battle with everyone including President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who is not quick to pass a Voting Rights Act as he is still dealing with civil unrest in the South which he is desperately trying to get under control. But King knows this is not an issue that can wait much longer to be addressed.
I have got to start off by saying David Oyelowo is a powerhouse in his portrayal of Dr. King, and he holds our attention completely from the very first moment he appears onscreen. It should be noted how Oyelowo campaigned for this role for seven years and managed to keep it even after the original director, Lee Daniels, departed the project. I have seen Oyelowo do memorable work in movies like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Lincoln” and “A Most Violent Year,” but I couldn’t find a trace of him in “Selma.” It felt like I was really watching Martin Luther King Jr. resurrected and walking among us again. Not once does Oyelowo succumb to doing a mere impersonation of the man who had a dream we still want to see become a reality. There’s a saying that in the theater you play a character and in film you are the character, and Oyelowo is definitely the man here.
The other big star of “Selma” is its director Ava DuVernay who brings this ever so important story to life so vividly. Granted, in some ways her presentation of the 60’s feels a little routine, and some scenes feel one-sided when they shouldn’t. Her portrayal of the marches, however, is appropriately devastating as she makes you feel ever blow inflicted by those afraid of change. These scenes do not leave the mind easily. King and his supporters are determined to protest in a non-violent way, and it’s hard not to feel for them when their supporters are being beaten senselessly. Deep down you want to see them fight back against the brutality even though we’re aware to do so will be giving the opposition far more ammunition than they deserve.
“Selma” also features a wealth of great performances from actors like Oprah Winfrey who channels her inner Sofia (the character she played in “The Color Purple”) for her role as Annie Lee Cooper who, at the movie’s start, is cruelly denied the opportunity to register to vote. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson as he adds layers to the former President which the screenplay doesn’t always give him. Tim Roth also turns in a strong performance as George Wallace, the always welcome Wendell Pierce is excellent as Hosea Williams, and Dylan Baker is ever so effective as J. Edgar Hoover to where I ended up trying to remember the actor’s name while watching this film.
Another performance worth giving special note to is Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo played this role previously in the 2011 movie “Boycott.” She and Oyelowo have a great scene together when she questions him about his alleged infidelity, and no music score is needed to empower it as DuVernay wisely focuses on the actors for all they are worth. Watching these actors here makes for one of the most compelling scenes I have seen in any 2014 movie.
Is “Selma” accurate to what actually happened in history? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All that matters to me is that it is true to the spirit of the facts more than anything else. We are beyond the point where we should expect movies “based on a true story” to be completely accurate to what actually occurred because dramatic considerations have to be taken into effect. While some argue Johnson was more open to King’s request for voting rights than he was shown to be here, there’s no denying the one most passionate about this issue was King himself. Whether or not this movie fails on a historical accuracy level, it does succeed on a dramatic one.
Having said all this, I kind of wished “Selma” didn’t paint a number of its character in such broad strokes. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which observed its characters, regardless of color or nationality, with a lot more thoughtfulness and dimension. The fact that “Selma” doesn’t quite succeed in doing this is a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the powerful effect the movie will have on those who take the time to see it.
“Selma” doesn’t just take us back to an important period in history; it reminds us of the things we as Americans should be fighting for. The movie shows many people of different races and religions joining Dr. King in this fight for an equality no one should have to fight for in this country. But here we are years later, and it turns out the fight is far from over. Once again, we have a lot to learn from history.