Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Stars: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
It’s positively shameful that this is the first feature film made specifically on Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. It has featured as a sidebar in many films but the light has never shone on this dramatic and seminal moment in the struggle for minority rights. And what a moment. Hundreds of brave individuals including King’s core political group, locals, and black and white supporters from across North America set out to have their say in a peaceful, orderly fashion, to claim their equal rights.
They must have gritted their teeth marching on a bridge named for a Ku Klux Klan chief but march they did. The first time it didn’t go well. All white police and state forces drove them back. But the second time, well, they made history. They had their say. The civil rights movement suddenly came into sharp focus and thus was begun the work to equalise everyone, regardless of race.
Today’s’ headlines out of Ferguson, New York, Seattle and other cities suggest not much progress has been made, and that’s a strong subject for debate. Thanks to King’s hopeful efforts and his ultimate sacrifice, the dialogue began and while it’s a better world today, it’s not perfect. The film shows us what might remain to be done.
Ava DuVernay makes her feature film debut with Selma, ands gives it political strength as well as personal realities, like King’s inner doubts that were in stark contrast to his forthright public persona. He would not let his guard down and compromise the fight. He wasn’t perfect, but he was first and offered hope and action. Inside he feared it would never be enough.
British actors do well in Selma, taking key roles. King is played by the classically trained David Oyelowo, who showed up on our shores in The Paperboy and Lincoln. He gained weight and dove into the subject matter, feeling the privilege of playing such a man. Tim Roth plays King’s mortal enemy Governor George Wallace, whose vendetta against King – and civil rights – blackened the eye of a free America. Roth is astounding, and Oyelowo is haunting.
Tom Wilkinson, a Brit, plays President Lyndon B. Johnson with whom King had a complicated relationship. Unwilling to put himself on the line, Johnson’s inaction cost the movement time and lives. Why British actors in the roles? I’m speculating that not growing up in the US gives them a certain arm’s length in which to develop their characters to reflect the factual realities of their stories.
Oprah Winfrey opens the film as a woman attempting to register to vote and being turned away. She’s like a Greek chorus through the film, watching the struggle, the movement, the march and the outcome.
King’s story is tragic, that’s no spoiler. The film ends with a heavy heart, mixed with hope. Selma is an important film and it is profoundly moving.