Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
I was born in the year 1988, which may immediately raise a red flag as you read any or all of my reviews of movies that I see. As a 26 year old I have many movies yet to see and much to learn both about watching movies and especially writing about them. From this statement, however, it should also be quite easy to discern that I was not alive during the Civil Rights Movement in this country, and as a result it would be quite easy and especially convenient for me to say that I would have happily volunteered to join up with the movement, myself a Midwestern, middle class white. That statement, of course, would be based on pure 20/20 vision of the past and a severe misunderstanding of history. Selma was bigger than I could dream of being, more intense and brutal than I would care to imagine. So yes, it is very easy for me to sit on my 21st century values and say I would have joined up with the movement, but saying something as petty as that truly does belittle the strength it took for these men and women to make the sacrifices they did for their own basic human rights.
Selma is a film that manages to take a giant of American history, Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and make him very real and human. In the midst of fighting American policy, law and public perception against blacks, King finds an idea in the city of Selma, Alabama. The idea is simple, to march, but what it stood for, what it fought for, and the amount of impediment in his way was extraordinary. Blacks in the south, while having the right to vote, were being pressed with insurmountable discrimination and undue requirements in order to qualify them to vote. King and his colleagues, in their non-violent fashion, set out to march from Selma 50 miles to the state’s capital, Montgomery, where they would push Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) for a new voting policy that would afford blacks the ability to exercise their right to vote.
Director Ava DuVernay’s film accomplishes many great things. Many of these moments are the direct result of what a great story and man are at the heart of the film, but in lesser hands the subject matter could easily fall into a film that worships Martin Luther King instead of appreciating him and the many others that were behind this historic undertaking. Oyelowo’s King is vulnerable, seen in moments of weakness and doubt, consoled by his friends, Abernathy and Young, chided and scolded by his wife, Coretta. But above all Oyelowo’s King is a leader, who accepts advice and criticism, channeling it into his moving speeches and firm reserve. There are many great performances throughout the film, from beginning to end, and above all of them is David Oyelowo. Perhaps his only real rival is a spectacular supporting turn by Henry G. Sanders as Cager Lee. The entire cast shines with the ability to instill courage and bravery packed with great emotional vulnerability.
DuVernay and her cinematographer Bradford Young shoot an endlessly interesting film as well. The techniques used only serve to enhance the story being told and the overall experience and impact of the film. Many of the shots incorporate a stunning wide angle perspective, even in moments of closeness, which paints King as a man who sees the bigger picture by working day by day, issue by issue to defeat the prejudices of America. It also paints King as just a part of the larger picture, and not a man who takes up the entire movement. Civil Rights were fought for by many people. Led by King, yes, but there are multitudes of men and women who deserve just as much credit and praise. I will say that the use of negative space in many of the shots, placing the subjects to the extreme right or left of the frame, felt just slightly overdone to distract from my engrossment within the film, as the technique permeates throughout. However, much of the cinematography affords DuVernay a fascinating way to enhance her storytelling and adds an additional layer of depth onto an already powerful story.
But what makes Selma such a powerful film to spend time with is its simple rawness. DuVernay manages to capture these very real people in very real performances from the entire cast. The greatest disappointment of the film is the fact that the King estate denied the filmmakers the right to use King’s speeches in the film. As a result, they were forced to re-word them, but you would hardly notice thanks in large part to the power of Oyelowo’s performance, but also in Paul Webb’s ability to replace them. Civil Rights and Slavery are two subjects that leave a scar with the American people and their history. As a nation, it was a great achievement to overcome both to certain extents, but that does not mean that they never happened, and that does not mean that they aren’t still happening today in some capacity. Seeing the struggle, discrimination and violence that people went through during these times is an upsetting viewing experience. I would like to thank DuVernay and her collaborators for not holding back and delivering a film that manages to capture the volatility of an event, but also the heart of it.