It's hard to believe there has been no major representation of Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. in a Hollywood movie before this. The 60s, civil rights, JFK, Malcolm X and more have had their moment in the spotlight and so it was time for this film. That it took almost 8 years to reach the screen and then managed to hit when it seemed America needed it most, nothing short of ridiculous, beautiful coincidence.
Apparently the lack of Dr.King on the big screen has a lot to do with King's estate. Their desire to preserve historical accuracy while being fiercely protective of King's image has lead to many planned films in recent years losing funding or just having their plug pulled during scripting stage. With that in mind and with all the other elements and characters Selma has to juggle, it is incredible it is as deep, nuanced and layered as it is. Director, writer and ex-producer Ava DuVernay is comfortable on a knife edge it seems.
Selma tells the story of the peaceful protest marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery in 1965. Lead by leading members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including Martin Luther King, to protest voting rights.
The film is far from a straight King biopic. There is no 'I have a dream' speech and it finishes 3 years shy of his tragic assassination. The film assumes, probably quite rightly, that you are aware of the iconic Dr.King legacy and instead, from its opening scene, it let's you meet a fleshed out, realistic and decidedly human Martin Luther King Jr. It manages to do this without relying on any obvious or manipulative scenes but rather by just letting the story play out naturally and for the tensions, frustrations, second thoughts and conflict to build beautifully.
There's a key through line in the film that works brilliantly to put you into the mind of King. His insistence, often in the face of opposition, that this be a peaceful, non violent, movement, when all the time he knows that for the movement to make headway, in the stubborn corridors or power, there must and will be violence. His conflict of knowing that horrendous beatings and deaths on the front page will embarrass the presidency into acting fast, while taking every death or injury horribly personally, allows us to feel the weight and burden of this strategy on King's shoulders and forgive him moments where he feels he may just be too tired to carry on. Add to this some issues at home, some conflicts within the movement, the pressures of talking to The President and an assured, remarkable and transformative performance by David Oyelowo as King and you have, what feels to be like, rare insight into this great man.
Selma is not just about Martin Luther King either. Everyone from the key figures at the top of the SCLC right down to people involved in small but highly significant events are portrayed in rich, complex performances by a gifted, watchable cast. This is as much to honour the courage, intelligence, foresight and humanity of these fine men and women as it is to tell a better, fuller story. While some historical dramas rely on attention to period detail or overly dramatic and manipulative retellings of obvious moments, Selma instead focusses on character and plot and is much the better film for it. That's not to say Selma doesn't have its unflinching, stylistic, cinematic moments either, it does and when DuVernay and her crew need to employ some interesting techniques to get a point or a moment across, they do with skill, artistry and, from my understanding, on a low budget and with hardly any time.
The film isn't flawless. The pacing is a little too leisurely in places and while it delves a little into the occasional philandering nature of Martin Luther King and other, less desirable aspects of his personality, it never does so with much confidence or clarity and so the scenes can seem a little redundant. Some of this is no doubt down to the King estate wishing to preserve a positive image of the man.
One thing on that topic is despite their approval of the movie and their desire for historical accuracy, sadly King's estate did not allow the filmmakers to use King's original speeches. Seems odd but actually it allows DuVernay's writing to sing and shine as she approximates Dr.King's oratory style with exceptional skill and David Oyelowo delivers those words with verve and passion.
Selma is a must see film. I would make it required viewing in schools. It is so important to the core of humanity as well as the identity of America as a country. However this is not just an American story. People are oppressed everywhere for a myriad of simply biological reasons: Colour of skin, gender, sexual preference and so on. What Selma is careful to show, is the diversity of people who marched that day. This is an issue that effects everyone and it seems utterly ridiculous and tragic to still be having this debate and these issues today. While no clear leaders have emerged in the variety of protests we've seen in 2014, Selma not only shows the intelligence, patience and strength of will such a leader needs, the huge pressure, burden and conflict that leadership faces but it also allows Martin Luther King Jr., his colleagues, fellow leaders, fellow activists and all that joined the march to share the message of unity and civil rights with us again, today through brilliant filmmaking and wonderful performance.