I believe that it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood really starts to tap into the growing anxiety and distain that the American public is feeling towards its police in light of the events in Ferguson and and New York in the past year. As such, it not only seems like a bit of creepy pre-ordained timing that this film comes out right on the heels of those atrocities, but there also could not be a more well suited story for these troubling times. Even with that cultural relevance along with the astronomical reviews the film has been receiving from the vast majority of critics that have reviewed it, I tried to go into this with fairly neutral expectations, not getting swept into the hype, although it certainly would be a shame if the film that finally tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr didn’t deliver.
It’s 1965, and although Dr King (David Oyelowo) has already made some huge strides in the civil rights movement, things are nowhere near prosperous. The last straw comes when a group of young black girls are killed in a fiery church explosion, compelling Dr. King to travel to Selma, Alabama to organize nonviolent marches to Alabama to force the hand of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in finally taking tangible action against police and social brutality towards an entire race, much to the dismay of the state’s governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth).
What matters most in any film such as this is whether or not the historical content rings true, or just feels like a bloated class lecture. Last year, 12 Years a Slave, extenuated this point by dealing with similar content with blistering brutality with great success. While Selma never quite hits the hits that hard, it does take that principle very much to heart in nearly every frame. The brutality that the police use in this film is nothing short of appalling, and it’s shown here with just enough detail and grit to make it hit home, while still making the film accessible to a family audience. Between that and the complex characters nothing here feels like a manipulative cause movie, and as such, it’s message actually gets across.
Speaking of those characters, the performances here for the most part are spot on. David Oyelowo has been asserting himself as quite a talent in supporting roles for a few years now, and takes full advantage of his opportunity here as Dr. King. Gaining weight and near perfectly capturing King’s speaking voice while still keeping it out of the realm of caricature, Oyelowo rides the line between King’s never ending drive for justice, along with his reserve about actions that he finds to be excessive. Wilkinson is also wonderful as the abrasive president caught in the middle of tons of issues, thinking of this one as just another one on the list, while Roth oozes salutary contempt at anyone who dares go against Alabama tradition.
There are a couple characters that do find themselves a little undeveloped though. Most notably, King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) never really gets enough screen time to really flourish, spending most of the movie flip flopping between being supportive and scared and generally taking the momentum out of the proceedings. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen are also a bit wasted as the respective lawyer and judge involved in the resulting court case, while Oprah Winfrey has a fairly unimportant role (after her admittedly fantastic first scene) that seems to pander a bit to her simply wanting to be in the movie.
Director Ava Duvernay for the most part does a fantastic job here, especially in the more tense sequences, but she still is a little rough around the edges. The script from Paul Webb is a bit slowly paced and doesn’t always have the best dialogue, and Duvernay never really elevates the more sluggish material. However, when the film dose kick into high gear, so does she, delivering some of the most masterfully done sequences of this type ever put on film.
While Selma dosen’t always fire on all cylinders, it’s still a very engaging look at both how far we’ve come, and how we still have a long way to go with race relations. Oyelowo does about as good of a job as anyone could have as Dr King, anchoring everything and honoring the legacy of the great man he is portraying, and as a whole, the movie does do the story justice. It’s certainly being a tad overhyped just because of how relevant it happens to be right now, but it’s still worth seeing, especially before awards season.