The story of Selma, Martin Luther King’s march between the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery, is one of great success, and yet, in the context of 2014, it also highlights a great many failures. The Civil Rights Movement achieved its goals of ending segregation and giving black Americans the right to vote. However, as evidenced by the high profile cases of (most recently) Michael Brown and Eric Garner, horrific racist attitudes still exist at every level in the USA 50 years later, manifesting themselves in unpunished acts of wanton violence. The great success of Selma as a film is that, despite these events, it still manages to wring every ounce of uplifting spirit from its story, a phenomenally well-acted tale of triumph over adversity.
In choosing to focus on one specific moment in the life of its subject, Selma avoids the problems inherent in more sweeping biopics (see: Unbroken), where focus on what is interesting is often lost. The Selma protests, and the brutally violent response they drew from the local law enforcement, make for morbidly fascinating viewing and, once the media coverage draws blood for King’s campaign, it becomes as inspirational as a historical drama can be. The closest parallel I can draw is with 2012’s Lincoln, another biopic made excellent partly because of its tight focus, and partly because of a stunning lead performance by Daniel Day Lewis.
Pleasingly, this is another positive element of Lincoln that makes its way into Selma. David Oyelowo is utterly magnetic as King, capturing the man’s natural leadership and legendary gift for rhetoric and grand speeches. One gets the feeling when watching Oyelowo deliver rousing addresses to his congregation in the local church that this is as close as a modern viewer can get to being in the same room as King himself. He owns the screen in his quieter moments too, a family man conflicted about the amount of time he has to spend putting himself and his loved ones in danger. The limited scope of the story means that first time writer Paul Webb doesn’t have to tackle the more nuanced parts of MLK’s moral character, although his cheating on his wife is checked off, but the focus on the exciting events and a great supporting cast steer Selma away from too much hero-worship. Every member of the ensemble does their utmost with their part, from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King capturing the bitterness of a wife near-estranged from her constantly active husband to a note-perfect Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B Johnson. If there is an individual villain to this piece, it’s the vile Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), but King’s reach and aims extend further than one man, with the main antagonist general ignorance.
The tensions caused by the irrational hatred so prevalent in the Deep South at the time erupt into scenes of sudden and intense violence. Directed and shot unflinchingly by Ava DuVernay (who looks set to be the first black woman to get a Best Director Oscar nod) and DP Bradford Young (his second great credit this year after A Most Violent Year), this is angry, visceral stuff. Made all the more potent by the recent violence in Ferguson, Missouri, Selma’s climactic moments both thrill and remind the audience that so much more is to be done in America if King’s dream is to ever be truly realised.
Selma also does a great job of showing the tactical side of the Civil Rights Movement. King and his inner circle plan with the forethought of military generals, only their troops are unarmed, with the sympathy of the wider world their most powerful weapon. It’s an important reminder that spur-of-the-moment protests are so rarely a good idea, often encouraging nothing more than a cycle of violence. Selma was a place chosen with a very deliberate train of thought, and the calculating side of the Movement is not something we’ve seen much of in film.
Fittingly, given that its subject matter is a source of so much inspiration, Selma is a completely triumphant film, right up to the end of the closing credits, with an incredibly catchy song – Glory, by John Legend and Common (who also appears in the film itself) – written specifically for the film playing you out of the cinema. A near-flawlessly executed historical drama is backed up by a seething rage and an electrifying lead performance. DuVernay captures the spirit of fury and injustice that inspired the Selma marches, making for both a captivating film and a vital message to modern America.