Film review: SELMA, from ‘Built For Speed’

The title of the film Selma refers to the Alabama town in which Martin Luther King Jr organised marches to protest the obstruction of voting rights for black Americans in the south. As anyone familiar with recent American history will recall, one of these protests turned hideously violent when state troopers, police under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark and local hoods savagely attacked the protesters.  Additional retaliation from white residents and possibly the Klan actually led to deaths.  Selma dramatises the events immediately leading up this tragic but pivotal incident and through these events explores the character of one of the 20th Century’s most influential people, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The film succeeds or fails on the success of David Oyelowo‘s portrayal of Dr King and thankfully he delivers a thoughtful yet commanding performance that is more interpretation than impersonation.  Oyelowo, who was so memorable playing provocateurs in The Paperboy and The Butler, convincingly portrays Martin Luther King as a humble, articulate man who is visibly troubled by the enormity of the task he has undertaken.  Oyelowo depicts King as a man constantly trying to cope with the pressure of conducting a campaign that drew seething hatred and even death threats from many whites, exasperation from an uncooperative Johnson administration and conflict with other factions within the civil rights movement.  Oyelowo also portrays King as a politically savvy activist who, on the pulpit, transforms into a fiery and astonishingly inspirational orator.

Some might suggest that the film tries too hard to portray King as a paragon of virtue and overlooks or reframes reputedly questionable behaviour such as non-appearances at marches and alleged sexual dalliances. The film suggests that a desperate Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) may have instructed an eager J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to spread misinformation about King to undermine his reputation.  Although Johnson took the initiative to enact the voting rights legislation, the film suggests that he was acting out of political expediency rather than morality and that, for him, the voting rights bill was a device for removing violent protests from the 6pm news and the from White House lawn.

A large cast of familiar faces that also includes Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr and Wendell Pierce (aka Bunk from The Wire) almost makes it feel as if we’re watching an all-star Oliver Stone film.  Fortunately, everyone on screen delivers a naturalistic and convincing performance (although Tim Roth at times turns Governor George Wallace into a leering villain) and this film is more restrained and balanced than a typical Oliver Stone film. 

For the most part, director Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young successfully capture the look and sound of the mid 1960’s although occasionally the film has the bland appearance of a tele-movie. 

A particularly impressive aspect of this film is the way it reveals the methodology of King’s activism, the way he and his advisors constructed campaigns and how they approached concerns such ethical issues and media coverage. Scriptwriter Paul Webb deserves particular credit here.

While Selma is not always thrilling or revelatory cinema, it’s still an inspiring depiction of a remarkable man’s life and the events that acted as a crucible of change in the civil rights movement. 

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Biopic/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Ava DuVernay.

Release date: 12th Feb 2015.

Running time: 128 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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