Selma (2014) – Film Review
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey
by Jen Grimble
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find ourselves with another cinematic biopic on our hands. Yet Selma is not so much the telling of Martin Luther King’s life, but a dissection of a significant period of his story. Director Ava DuVernay uses her documentary-film experience to create a movie that is more like a sixties film reel than a product of 21st century technology. The result is captivating and entirely appropriate for the history she is retelling.
Leaving ‘I Have a Dream’ firmly untouched, Selma draws Martin Luther King away from his famous phrase. It explores several months in 1965, when Dr King leads a series of peaceful protests. They conclude with a walk from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. The 54-mile march proposes to secure equal voting rights for every citizen.
We enter Selma in the aftermath of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This critical piece of legislation bans race, colour or religious discrimination. Yet the new law is neither acknowledged, nor adhered to by the majority. So when President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is unwilling to expand on the recent progress, Dr King (David Oyelowo) takes matters into his own hands. With a growing army of supporters, he travels to Selma to spread his message of equality. Several violent episodes unfold. This leads up to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. It is one of the most important historical moments in American history. Oyelowo offers a tasteful and competent depiction. He leads the rest of the cast to provide a uniform deliverance of power and emotion.
“A personal portrayal of a brutal time”
DuVernay tells her story with a three-fold theme system. The relationship between Dr King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo); the vicious acts that transpire during the civil rights protests; and political and personal restraints. The snapshot of domestic life is the only theme that the director does not explore. DuVernay almost avoids taking the subject further, raising the issue of adultery momentarily, before shutting it down completely, to leave the topic inconclusive.
The other two themes provide a much stronger backstory. Through flashbacks of a tragic bombing that kills several children, and numerous assaults on innocent men and women, DuVernay gives an undiluted message. That is, Selma is about the ‘everyman’. By naming her film after the city where these events transpire, DuVernay makes the film about an entire nation. It is not just the one man who brought them all together.
Selma has a simplistic style, tasteful and humble cinematography brought to us by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year). Dulled sepia tones add a depth and beauty to the humblest of scenes. Together, Young and DuVernay create a snapshot of the past. A sensitive and personal portrayal of an unpredictable and brutal time in African-American history. Selma mixes the personal with the national; the political with the historical; the singular with the many. It will leave audiences engaged long after the final credits have rolled.