Surprisingly few films have been produced about the life of Martin Luther King, one of the towering figures of the 20th Century. A handful of documentaries including the Sidney Lumet and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1970 King a Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis and a 6 hour television biopic, made in 1978 starring Paul Winfield are the celluloid documents to the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Perhaps his enormous profound influence has intimidated filmmakers. However in 2014 an African American female director known largely for her TV work and documentaries has bravely tackled this complex man.
Ava Duvernay shrewdly focuses on a slice in the civil rights history of MLK and not the totality of his remarkable life. She has cast two English actors in the leads as King and his wife Coretta. David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo are extraordinary in recreating the private and public lives of these historical figures. Oyelowo (The Butler/The Paperboy) captures King’s essence, beautifully delivering the poetic speeches whilst capturing the simple flawed humanity of the man. Like Kennedy, King’s sexual proclivities were legendary and Selma does not shy away from presenting the impact King’s infidelity has on his long suffering wife. These moments capture the man behind the legend.
Duvernay’s film opens on the enigmatic MLK receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, however it is not the ceremony that DuVernay focuses her lens on, it is the intimacy of the moment prior. Coretta and Martin share a moment, over the wearing of a neck tie to the ceremony. King is uncomfortable with the celebrity of the award, then suddenly an innocent joyous moment is cruelly interrupted by the awful violence of racism. So triggers the trip to Selma to fight for the right to vote, the three marches across Edmund Pettus bridge, the last ending at Montgomery. The archive footage of the march from Selma to Montgomery to the music of Fink “yesterday was hard on all of us” sends tingles down your spine. The end result of the protest and violence resulted in the voting rights act of 1965 signed by Lyndon Johnson.
In a difficult year for race relations in the United States, the arrival of this excellent film is a pertinent reminder of how one man shifted the national conversation and delivered profound change for his people.