If there was ever a time to learn from our past, the time is now. In light of the recent tragedies in Ferguson and New York City, Selma (opening today) could not open at a more important time. It is not a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as one might suspect, but instead it focuses on one of the most important events in the civil rights movement, an event that of course, Dr. King was a big part of. Instead, it's a film about people, about our rights as Americans and it's a reminder of how drastic change can be accomplished through peaceful protest.
Yep, couldn't have come at a better time.
4 out of 5 stars
In 1965, in Selma, Alabama, Dr. King (David Oyelowo) and other civil rights leaders organized a massive, peaceful march, from Selma to Montgomery, in protest of voting rights being denied to African-American citizens. As was law, blacks did have voting rights nationwide, but the reality was that several blacks - across the nation but overly prevalent in the South - were still being denied their rights via intimidation and collusion.
At this point, Dr. King was already a massive presence of hope and inspiration. At the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson (portrayed powerfully by Tom Wilkinson) meets with Dr. King regularly, but he is unwilling to get involved in King's cause with the voting issue, opting instead to just wait. Well, civil liberty cannot wait, so Dr. King continues pushing for change, in a state where racist governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and hot-headed Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) look to destroy the swelling uprising.
Selma, the film, and first-time director Ava DuVernay smartly focus on the story of the march, foregoing usual trappings of the biopic. There are no flashbacks to Dr. King as a child, or how he grew to be such an influential leader. We get to see him as he was in 1965. DuVernay is not afraid to include Dr. King, warts and all, as he is opposed at different times by other blacks, and that he made some unpopular decisions along the way, like when he turned his marchers around for fear of violent repercussions.
It also includes fascinating slices of "I never knew that" truth, like that Malcolm X actually played a part in King's march, and had met with King's wife, Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo), shortly before he was assassinated. Had that not happened, their two different ideological movements may have united in the most unexpected of ways.
David Oyelowo gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Dr. King, and Wilkinson is good enough as President Johnson to earn praise as well. You can just tell that everyone in Hollywood wanted to be a part of this film, with bit roles given to Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen and even Oprah Winfrey, whose character only has but one or two lines.
When Selma focuses on the march, on the struggles of blacks and the uphill battle that they took on to earn their rights, it is an amazing achievement...the sort of film that inspires you to take action and reminds you that change is possible. However, they do step away from the main thread from time to time to delve into King's personal life, and his relationship with his wife. These scenes weren't nearly as effective and made the film also feel a bit stretched. A small quibble, but the inclusion of Oprah as a minor character only took away from the story they were trying to tell with that character...instead of feeling for this woman, the reaction was more along the lines of, "Oh my gosh, that's Oprah!"
When peeled back, Selma succeeds because it is a story about us all. Several minor characters, it turns out, were real people, and the closing epilogue allows for the film to hit on different facets of the civil rights movement, such as the threat of violence from fringe groups like the KKK, and how violent backlash wasn't just aimed at blacks, but also at the whites who were helping the blacks. Oyelowo's final speech - a real speech given by Dr. King at the end of the Selma march - gave me tingles.
Let's hope that the message of Selma is experienced by us all. Yes there is horrible injustices happening every day, but violence on top of violence directly rejects Dr. King's vision and purpose. If ever there was a movie about a historical event made pertinent and topical to today's society, it's Selma.
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes, Rated
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Martin Sheen, Carmen Ejogo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Dylan Baker, Tessa Thompson, Stan Houston
Directed by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow)
Opens locally on Friday, Jan 9, 2015
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