Quite why Selma didn’t get more Oscar nominations (especially for David Oyelowo’s outstanding performance as Martin Luther King) is a mystery. And why it got less than American Sniper is unfathomable.
This film takes place in the town of Selma in Alabama and focuses on the historic march to Albany in 1965, as well as King’s pursuit of equal voting rights for black people living in this area. Selma also ties in reaction from US President Lyndon B Johnson, as well as his battles with King and his policies to monitor all the civil rights leader’s communication and activity.
And it gets off to a strong start. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is turned away from a voting office where she is trying to register for not being able to name all the county judges in Alabama (there are 67). These personal stories that are peppered through the film demonstrate the dignity of those involved in the fight (men, women and even children), which contrasts starkly with the extreme use of force by the authorities. Never more so is this apparent when after a night time march in Selma the police chase Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mum and his grandfather Cager into a café, beat Cager savagely and without provocation, and shoot Jimmie dead in cold blood. None of this is provoked and it’s all the more shocking for it.
Oyelowo is both commanding and captivating as King: the booming voice, the charisma, the drive – it’s all there. But director Ava DuVernay’s focus was not merely on King as an activist fighting for a just cause, but also on how he was the canniest of political operatives. And it was this intelligence and understanding of how things would look to the outside world that enabled him to put pressure on Johnson over changes to voting laws. Never was that more clear than in the first planned march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama when King knew that TV pictures would be beamed across the world showing the brutality of the police, and that it would be this that would galvanise the people into action.
But it’s a fair and just portrayal of King, expressing the point that he is, after all, still a man. His relationship with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is strained because he spends all his time fighting just and equality. While he may feel guilt at both the lack of care and attention he pays to her, as well as his infidelities, it doesn’t change his unwavering drive.
Selma excels because it’s not overdone; the film never seems like it’s trying too strongly to drag out emotions or be shocking in its use of violence. Its simple but effective storytelling combined with some powerful performances make it a moving, shocking and inspirational film.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Common, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Keith Stanfield, Wendell Pierce, Martin Sheen.
Running time: 123 minutes
Karen is an experienced journalist and editor who has worked across B2B and consumer publications, both print and online.