John Legend and Common‘s powerful performance of Best Original Song nominee, “Glory,” and brave acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the Oscar ceremony last week. That song was a resonant soul/hip-hop combo that captured the atmosphere of its source film well: Ava DuVernay‘s Selma, a historical drama about Martin Luther King and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In another year, this could have been a front runner for the awards season, but it fell away in favor of the more eye-catching competition of Birdman and Boyhood. While Selma is undoubtedly the kind of film tailor-made for awards, and thus watching it seems a little pointless now the awards season has been and gone, Legend‘s speech reminded us that this remains an extremely relevant film – and a pretty good one, too, hinging on a brilliant performance by David Oyelowo.
Focus on one historical event
Biopics often fall into the trap of trying to cover all the significant events of the subject’s life to the extent that nothing can be explored in depth. Selma does the opposite by choosing to focus on one event in King’s turbulent life: the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, when hundreds of African-Americans – and later, whites – participated in protest marches for their right to vote, despite violent attacks from local state troopers.
So, we skip the origin story; King is introduced as the leader of the growing civil rights movement, meeting regularly with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). While the pair have already made significant progress in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legally ending segregation, the battle is far from over as corrupt law enforcement and legislation prevents non-whites from even registering to vote in the deep South. A campaign in the town of Selma, Alabama – where blacks make up 57% of the population but less than 1% of the electorate – grows, and marches to the state capital are planned to the growing frustration of Johnson.
A well-paced film
Those familiar with this part of American history will know how the marches went down and the effect this had on the movement; if not, the film guides you through these events smoothly. Very well-paced, the plot refuses to drag even at times when nothing much is happening – DuVernay, who here directs her first major feature after several low-budget indie films, creates tension and character development even in the several scenes between King and Johnson that essentially consist of conversations that don’t achieve anything.
Bradford Young‘s cinematography is excellent, avoiding the TV-movie aesthetic that biopics often suffer from; the beautifully composed shots of endless lines of protesters say more than any line of dialogue. The standout sequence in the film is the first march, which ended in brutal violence towards protesters broadcast on live American TV. Cross-cut with the stunned reaction of white American viewers around the country, the music, visuals and editing combine to provide a gripping feeling that the tide of the movement is changing with each blow.
But the big question in a film about a figure like Martin Luther King is, of course, the portrayal of King himself. British actor, Oyelowo, rises to the occasion magnificently well, capturing his distinct voice and oratory skills but without the performance becoming an impression or impersonation. He gives King warmth and humanity, balancing the personal and political in a way that few performances of historical figures can.
The filmmakers were actually denied the use of King’s real speeches due to copyrights, meaning Oyelowo is working with material written by DuVernay to sound like a speech he would perform. And yet when he delivers them, I absolutely felt the power and hope that they must have inspired in those who listened to them; when he implores his audience to yell, “Give us the vote!” it’s almost hard not to join in.
Carmen Ejogo is also excellent as Coretta Scott King, especially in a brave scene that addresses King’s marital infidelity – a good move on part of screenwriter Paul Webb to address the complexities of his character rather than making him an unquestionable saint. Oyelowo and Ejogo are two of four British actors who take main roles in a very American film; the other two are Wilkinson and Tim Roth, who gives his best performance is years as George Wallace, the skin-crawling Governor of Alabama who is completely opposed to giving the what he wants even at the expense of logic and political sense. Roth has no fear in detailing Wallace’s shameless bigotry and racism, and he relishes every drawled vowel of a Southern accent that would make Frank Underwood blush.
But despite superb performances across the board and an undeniable technical quality, there is something faintly underwhelming about Selma – a sense that the whole film is less than the sum of its fine parts. Maybe it’s due to the supporting characters, who feel a bit underdeveloped especially when compared to the leads. For example, and a mild spoiler alert here, two men are murdered in the film – but we don’t know them well enough to have the emotional reaction that the characters on screen do.
There’s something bothersome about Oprah Winfrey‘s character; I’m not really sure what her character added to the film, and at times she seems to be there just as a famous face to focus on during the march scenes. Overall, the film may have suffered from being too focused on the marches; while 2013’s The Butler didn’t work because it tried to cram the entire civil rights movement into 2 hours, Selma is so narrowed onto this one event that it lacks a wider context. You’d need a good knowledge of American history to properly understand the importance of the Voting Rights Act, which is something that international viewers (like myself) are going to lack.
But that said, it’s still a film more than worth watching, for the excellent performances and the depiction of an important chapter in American history. The ease and confidence by which Ava DuVernay has adjusted from $200,000 indie to a $20 million Oscar movie of this scale marks her out as a strong new talent in American cinema. Despite its flaws, Selma is a promising sign and, as John Legend reminded us, a story that’s still very relevant to audiences today.
Have you seen Selma? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments.
(top image source: Paramount Pictures)