When it comes to making a biopic, filmmakers are often faced with the difficult task of diluting a person’s entire life into a two hour run time. Though this has worked here and there in the past, the most successful biopics have been those that focus on a defining time in a person’s life; the most recent and well-received being The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Selma is a perfect example, in both name and execution, of such a film; one that does not attempt to present the entirety of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredible life, but rather a chapter within that life, one that can be argued is representative of the great passion of his leadership as well as his indefatigable will to better the lives of black Americans and improve the United States as a whole.
Centered on the events that led up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, Selma explores the inner dynamics of the civil rights movement as well as King’s often strained relationship with the sitting President at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson. Given the atmosphere of virulent racism present in a large portion of the American south, many black Americans were denied the ability to vote even though it was their right as American citizens. Dr. King, along with his fellow activists, struggled not only with state-sponsored racism, but also the question of how to respond to such racism in a way that would be lasting, yet nonlethal to those who supported them.
Though Selma has a sprawling cast that includes such fine actors as Oprah Winfrey (you know who Oprah is), Common (Hell on Wheels), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry McGuire), Tom Wilkinson (Shakespeare in Love), Tessa Thompson (star of last year’s excellent Dear White People), and Wendell Pierce (The Wire), the film is about Martin Luther King Jr.; British actor David Oyelowo gives a rousing performance that never strays into imitation, but rather stands upon its own merits, raw, impassioned, and most importantly, full of the stirring spirit that so invigorated the words of Dr. King himself. How he missed out on a Best Actor nomination this year is a mystery to me, but he is deserving of the highest praise.
Among the cast of supporters, for me at least, it was Carmen Ejogo (Away We Go) as Coretta Scott King that stood out the most. In her few scenes, she gives voice to the enormous strain placed upon Dr. King’s family, as well as illuminating Coretta’s strength and perseverance in supporting her husband and his cause, despite the danger to their family and his failings as a husband. Understated, yet powerful, Ejogo is one of the most memorable parts of an already unforgettable film.
As for the direction, it is excellent. Though Ava DuVernay somehow missed out on a Best Director nomination for the Oscars this year, she is no doubt deserving of such a distinction. The direction is imaginative, yet grounded, able to convey the enormity of what is occurring onscreen without being pandering. Aided by Cinematographer Bradford Young, Selma comes alive with beautiful imagery juxtaposed with the horrific violence perpetrated against black Americans and their supporters at the time. The score, penned by Jason Moran, is thoughtful, yet never manipulative, rather used to accentuate and embody what is taking place on screen. The story itself is powerful, strong at its bones in the form of a clever script that honors Dr. King, rather than mythologizing him, and in doing so, presenting a normal man who persevered and triumphed in the face of enormous adversity.
The problem of racism is not over, and though Selma is unfortunate in its timeliness, the enduring spirit of its story and the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. live on. Selma is a staggering film, one that reminds us not only of the needlessness of hate, but also the overwhelming power of love and togetherness, a message that is still sorely needed today.
Go see it and do someone else a favor, and take them too.