Here then, is Selma, a cinematic depiction of Martin Luther King’s campaign to bring about equal voting rights by staging a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, bringing to light not only the political struggles but the great personal sacrifices made along the way.
The centrifugal force of the film is undeniably David Oyelowo in the starring role. Much like Eddie Redmayne in fellow best picture nominee The Theory of Everything, it’s a performance in which any resemblance to the actor is utterly forgotten behind the guise of the character. Oyelowo flawlessly bears the emotional weight and physical presence of King, appearing to fill the screen even when the cinematography shunts him to the edge of the frame or presents him in enigmatic side-on profile. The fact that he has not received as much as a nomination for best actor at the upcoming BAFTAs or Academy Awards is a crime, not for the much-touted difficulties over ethnicity but simply because he is far and away the cream of the crop.
Whilst on the subject of fellow awards contenders, Selma is a step-up in terms of balancing social issues with inner turmoil. Eastwood’s American Sniper fell apart because the intimate moments felt rushed and ill-disciplined while the action sequences were cold and uninvolving, but director Ava DuVernay has managed to find the sweet spot in the balance between the battles both political and personal. A central conflict between King and President Johnson (played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson) is contrasted cleverly with the breakdown of the former’s relationship with his wife with the ever-growing marches woven throughout.
The aforementioned marches and peaceful protests are very carefully and sensitively handled, with great care taken to pay tribute to those who suffered in the violent backlash without painting the antagonist as white-trash stereotypes. The violence itself isn’t particularly graphic, but the sound design and the array of performances scattered amongst the protestors (Wendell Pierce, Stephan James and Lorraine Toussaint especially) help to sell the anger and pain of oppressed people fighting against awful discrimination.
DuVernay has also avoided the standard biopic issue by choosing to focus on specific events that shaped both King and the civil rights movement rather than attempting to encompass the entire struggle or the life of its leader. The director should be praised as much for creating an engaging and concise drama as she should for bringing such an important story to mainstream cinema. Selma is not a perfect piece but it is an extraordinary and important story that is well-told and gorgeously mounted with a reverential, masterful performance at the centre. Many historical dramas could learn an awful lot from the talent displayed here.