WRITTEN REVIEW – Selma (2015)
Directed by: Ava DuVerney
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Carmen Ejogo & Oprah Winfrey
Music: Jason Moran
Release Date: February 6th 2015
Despite Martin Luther King being considered one of the most influential political activists of the 20th century, he hasn’t been widely represented on the big screen. While individuals fighting for similar causes such as Malcolm X have their own biopics, the reason there has been a severe lack of Doctor King on screen is because King’s descendants exclusively owned the rights to his iconic speeches. After all, what movie about MLK would be complete without his “I have a dream” speech from 1963 or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” which was delivered the day before he was tragically assassinated in April 1968.
While in 2009 the King family licensed the rights to use those speeches to Warner Bros. and Dreamworks (who currently have zero plans to utilise those rights at time of writing), the production team behind last year’s “Best Picture” winner ‘12 Years A Slave‘ under Paramount Pictures hope to make lightning strike twice with ‘Selma‘; another movie based on the discrimination of African Americans. Helmed by indie-film darling Ava DuVernay, can ‘Selma‘ captivate audiences like ‘12 Years A Slave‘ even without the original words of Martin Luther King?
In the mid-1960s it is officially legal for African Americans to vote. However, due to opposition of the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks are still unable to vote due to intimidation tactics and a manipulation of the law. Martin Luther King (Oyelowo) pleads to then President Lyndon B. Johnson (Wilkinson) to rectify this, but he is unwilling to do so. In order to force the President’s hand, Martin Luther King and many of his friends travel to Selma with plans to stage a massive peaceful march/protest through to Montgomery. It’s not long before their plight starts to gain worldwide media attention and with all the eyes of the world watching Selma, Martin Luther King endeavours to see the march through.
When it comes to biopics, there’s always the tendency to view certain individuals through rose-tinted glasses. Martin Luther King is often remembered by history as a man who used peace to his advantage and always strived to avoid confrontation and violence. A weaker version of ‘Selma‘ would have presented this idealised version of the man, but this much smarter version seeks to portray Martin Luther King as a master of revolutionary tactics.
The reason Martin Luther King chose Selma for the Civil Rights Voting Marches was because he knew it was a racially incendiary town. He knew that Governor George Wallace (Roth) and Sheriff Clark (Houston) were adamantly opposed to racial equality with Clark in particular being renowned for racial violence. MLK used the uneasy tensions in Selma in order to deliberately poke the bear causing them to retaliate and due to the presence of the Nobel Peace Prize winner MLK as well as the hundreds who gathered for a non-violent, peaceful protest the story garnered worldwide media attention.
MLK used this sympathy to manipulate the media in order to bring the plight of African Americans to the public consciousness. It was a brilliant tactic and shows MLK as not just a peaceful activist, but as an incredibly intelligent psychological opponent for the southern racists.
‘Selma‘ portrays the indignities forced upon African Americans in the 1960s to an uncompromisingly accurate degree. One of the first scenes has Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) make her 5th attempt to register to vote but is forbidden to do so because she can’t name all 67 county judges in Alabama. The scene is ripped straight out of the history books. The marches themselves and the brutality on display by the police officials in Selma also has very little restraint. Photos of these attacks were broadcast worldwide and printed on the front page of the newspapers in 1965 with many images being disturbingly recreated by Ava DuVerney in the movie.
‘Selma‘ literally transcribes moments from history and lays them bare for the world to revisit with startling clarity and accuracy.
Even moments that could discredit MLK make it into the movie with his wife confronting him about a possible infidelity from phone call recordings. Throughout the movie, captions are shown on the screen briefly describing the events, who was present and what time they happened. This framing device represents the FBI spying on MLK and his family by wiretapping their house and documenting MLK’s every move. We won’t know what was discovered about MLK or his potential affairs until 2027 as the tapes have been sealed by a court order until then, but Ava DuVerney still including the potential flaws of an almost deified individual is highly commendable and brave.
David Oyelowo’s performance as MLK is astonishingly good, in that the actor is completely unrecognisable and disappears behind this iconic figure. The voice is near-perfect, the inflections and his delivery on the created-for-the-movie speeches are compelling. You can see why literally thousands of people followed this man and hung onto his every word and Oyelowo breaths life into someone who has been criminally under-represented by the movies. Incidentally, yes I do think that David Oyelowo has been snubbed by the Oscars (remove Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell and replace with David Oyelowo and Jake Gyllenhaal for ‘Nightcrawler‘ and that’s the ideal line-up, in my opinion).
However, David Oyelowo’s performance and the characterisation of MLK do bring light to a slight flaw with the movie in that most of the other characters aren’t as fleshed out or as interesting. While this is definitely his story and he gets some great scenes with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Ejogo, who also played Coretta in the 2001 TV movie ‘Boycott‘) particularly one where she opens up about receiving racially motivated death threats through the phone and threats to her children’s lives, the vast supporting cast don’t get much in the way of development.
The performances are great and there are a few stand outs such as Oprah Winfrey and Henry G. Sanders but the rest of the Civil Rights groups don’t get much development. Malcolm X makes a brief appearance in one scene which takes place days before his death but it feels very glossed over. That could be because there’s already an acclaimed biopic on Malcolm X but it feels abrupt to gloss over it in ‘Selma‘.
The white figures of authority, however, are a mixed bag. Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace is a guy who you love to hate and Roth’s wormy portrayal is apparently very reminiscent of the real figure. Giovanni Ribisi is good in the role of the President’s advisor and while Tom Wilkinson makes an impression as President Lyndon B. Johnson it’s his dynamic with MLK that detracts from ‘Selma‘.
Much has been made about Johnson’s portrayal in ‘Selma‘ and how he was actually a champion of civil rights which is why he had such a prominent relationship with MLK, but in this movie he has that same relationship…but he doesn’t want to pass a bill protecting African Americans and allowing them to vote.
It’s not enough to cripple the film and I think the outcry against it during its Oscar campaign (an all too-common occurrence of the Weinstein company playing dirty) but it does simplify the conflict to a confusing degree. In the movie, Lyndon B. Johnson gives no justifiable reason as to why he can’t pass this bill. I’m sure he may have had one in real life, but in ‘Selma‘ there is none. During one phone conversation, Johnson pleads with MLK to stop the march and MLK responds along the lines of (I can’t remember the exact quote. Sorry);
“YOU can stop this, Mr. President. You can stop this with a stroke of your pen, but you won’t.”
‘Selma‘ doesn’t show why Johnson was forced to delay this progressive bill that he seemed to be in favour of for as long as he did. This omission is oddly placed, especially considering how accurate and true-to-life most of the other events in the movie are.
‘Selma‘ is easily Ava DuVerney’s most ambitious film to date and it’s gorgeously shot. The quaint town of Selma seems almost idyllic which makes the barbaric acts seem even more impactful on screen showing that racism can come from anywhere and is sometimes hiding in plain sight. The costumes and production design brilliantly recreates the 1960s, Jason Moran’s score is subtle but leaves an impression at just the right moments with well placed piano motifs, the lighting is brilliant and the camerawork is dynamic. ‘Selma‘ is an incredibly well assembled movie from a production stand-point and I personally don’t understand the criticisms that it’s received about it looking like a TV Movie.
‘Selma‘ is an incredibly powerful, historical biopic that breaks down the myth of Martin Luther King in order to rebuild him as a flawed, but intelligent master manipulator of the media in an attempt to progress the world for the greater good. It’s well put together, with an revolutionary lead performance by Oscar-snubbed David Oyelowo and confidently directed by fellow Oscar-snub Ava DuVerney. Its portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson, while not a damnation of the film, is a noticeable oversight but other than that ‘Selma‘ is an accurate portrayal of the iconic events that took place in Selma in 1965.
But what’s most powerful of all, is that despite Martin Luther King’s closing speech saying that racial equality is approaching, over 50 years later the events of ‘Selma‘ and the images broadcast around the world are STILL an all-too common occurrence. The movie juxtaposes MLK’s closing speech with lines of text showing what happened to Viola Liuzzo, one of the white, visiting peaceful protesters, almost immediately after the speech too place, with the credits playing the Award Winning and Oscar-Nominated song “Glory” by Common and John Legend making explicit reference to Ferguson last year and the continual oppression of African Americans despite the efforts made by the Civil Rights Activists throughout the 21st Century.
As Public Enemy say in their song “Say It Like It Really Is” (the trailer music for ‘Selma‘);
“This revolution goes on and on…”
I give ‘Selma‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 14th Feb 15