Saturday 21 February 2015


(Ava DuVernay, 2014)

David Oyelowo is astonishing in Selma. It can't be easy to play a historical figure whose voice and mannerisms are so ingrained in public consciousness, but Oyelowo makes his Martin Luther King Jr a breathing, flawed, emotional human being, never seeming to worry about the icon. King here is calculating, funny, worried, righteous but also as authoritative and charismatic as the man must have been. When Oyelowo has to orate before a crowd, he is inspiring and rousing. When he has to charm a smaller group, he can do that too. But he is perhaps best in the moments when his personal life is threatened by the march of the Civil Rights movement and its opponents attempts to squash it. The revelation of his infidelity and the panic in his eyes when he and his wife (Carmen Ejogo, also excellent) discuss it makes King vulnerable and believable in a way nothing else here quite does.
Aside from that magnificent lead performance, Selma is an interesting film.
Basically a piece of prestige Oscar-bait, it seems edgy thanks to the (still topical) racial content of the story it tells, but that edginess is entirely absent from the style or storytelling. Director DuVernay instead settles for an extremely conventional approach, often lapsing into hackneyed scenes and moments. There is that honeyed period look to everything here, reminiscent of Driving Miss Daisy or Forrest Gump in its warm portrayal of the South in the 1960s. There is the often cringeworthy use of music. If for the majority of the first act, DuVernay eschews any music at all, creating a terse, factual tone, when it starts to seep in, she abandons all semblance of taste, and runs a gospel-folk number over a key scene of marching and violence. Her treatment of the death of four young girls in a church bombing also feels somewhat off; she depicts them within a scene of almost Spielbergian perfection and innocence, and her cutting underlines what is about to happen before it actually does.
The story follows the efforts of King and a group of his colleagues to organise a protest march from the town of Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in order to encourage Lyndon B Johnson's Government to introduce a change to the laws of the nation, allowing blacks to vote without interference or difficulty. This is met with imprisonment, police brutality and intimidation, until media coverage sparks public outcry and Johnson seems forced to act.
A huge cast of black actors are all impressive, and despite the sporadic moments of tonal uncertainty, DuVernay generally maintains great control over this material - this is a film impressively content to linger on long conversations between activists over policy decisions and political strategy.
That is to say; Selma rarely patronises its audience, instead assuming that they will follow it wherever it goes. It is also nicely restrained; sorrowful rather than coruscatingly enraged about the awful events it depicts.

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