It’s not a black issue. It’s an American issue.
There are no words to describe the effect that Selma has on you, no sentences I can write to accurately convey the pain and confusion I feel from watching these horrible acts of cruelty and racism on screen. Selma is an emotional masterpiece. It not only succeeds in resurrecting one of America’s most recognized activists and civil rights leaders: it summons a powerful feeling of guilt and anger for the African-American people, showing us how bad things were in 1965 and comparing it to how bad things are today. It may take place in the 60’s, but Selma relates just as much to today’s world as it does to back then.
Following the Civil Rights March to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, Selma stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. during what is arguably the most crucial period during the civil rights movement. When President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) refuses to intervene on instances of racial violence and pushing for black voting rights, King joins up with blacks, whites, men, and women alike to march from Selma and defend their rights as human beings.
The heart and soul of Selma lies with three people: Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, and Martin Luther King Jr. DuVernay is a revelation here, not only pouring all of her technical craft into this visceral picture: she’s pouring just as much of her spirit as well, channeling her pride for her people and her anger at their mistreatment. In the opening shot, for instance, as King prepares himself to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, the shot is zoomed so close into his somber face that it looks like a mug shot, showing the prison that King is self-encapsulated in. Later, DuVernay guides her cinematographer Bradford Young through vicious scenes of rioting and retaliation, an image so striking that it almost instantly brings to mind the chaos of Ferguson from a few months ago. Neither one are coincidences. DuVernay is doing her duty as a storyteller here, giving a picture that is not only crisp in filming and editing, but is also emotionally invested as a historical epic.
But if DuVernay is the one with the vision, Oyelowo is the man who brought it to life. Here is one of the best performances of the year, a portrayal so striking and similar to it’s historical counterpart that it is nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. He looks like Martin Luther King Jr., putting on 30 pounds just to be physically convincing in the role. But what I find most impressive about Oyelowo is how he acts like King, in speech, emotion, movements and all. When he speaks, he talks with a certain sort of wisdom and earnest, a voice so serene that it soothes you like the sound of a church choir. When he speaks to the masses, he preaches loudly and proudly, his voice booming with passion and pride. But the most quietly emotional moments come when King is at home with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), where we see him in a vulnerable, uncertain state, and we get to see Martin Luther King Jr. the man, not Martin Luther King Jr. the legend. In Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Oyelowo was witnessing Martin Luther King Jr. as a supporter. Now, he has become Martin Luther King Jr.
These two people in combination provide what is perhaps the most raw and authentic portrayal of King to date: a man who has passion, vigor, anger, and love for the cause that he believes in, but at the end of the day, is still just a man. He’s not immortal. He’s not immune to history, a fact that the film doesn’t hold back in reminding us at the end credits. He gave his life for the beliefs that he held, and the film does a great job being a tribute to both.
My only regret is that King’s staple words are not included in the film. The iconic “I have a dream” speech was omitted from the film not by choice, but by law. King’s children were so focused on the profits they could make from King’s words that they forgot the importance of the message that they carried with it. DuVernay doesn’t. She managed to make a powerful, provocative film that gave testament to the greatness of the civil rights movement. To think, a few years ago DuVernay was just a little known filmmaker trying to get her career by with the likes of I Will Follow or Middle of Nowhere. Now she has made Selma, and what a powerful epic she has made indeed.