UK Release Date: 6th February 2015
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr
Synopsis: The story of Martin Luther King’s wrangling with President Johnson and series of protests in Selma, Alabama over equal voting rights for black people.
When the nominations for Oscars 2015 were announced, many were talking about Selma as one of the most heavily snubbed films of the year. The hard-hitting civil rights drama was well-reviewed in America, but only received nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song. It won the latter, leaving with just one award as Birdman scooped the top prizes. However, history will likely remember Selma as a film far more important than an Oscars also-ran.
Following the case of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in an effort to secure legislative protection for black voting rights. When Johnson refuses to acquiesce, King begins a series of protests in Selma, Alabama – to the chagrin of local governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).
It is utterly unforgivable that the Academy largely failed to recognise Selma because it’s an incredibly impressive film. Right from the start, it contrasts the glossy interiors of the corridors of power with the brutal discrimination against black people. The murder of four black girls in a church in one of the first scenes is a moment of incredible cinematic power thanks to Ava DuVernay’s unshowy direction.
| "Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love – for what we believe."
But the powerhouse of the project is David Oyelowo, who is transformative as Martin Luther King. He inhabits the iconic leader perfectly – managing the quiet, brooding man and the charismatic public speaker to great effect. There’s never any notion that this is a performance because Oyelowo inhabits the character so completely. It’s utter nonsense that he missed out on an Oscar nod for Selma, given that the category included Bradley Cooper’s shrug-inducing display in the poor American Sniper.
Crucially, though, Selma is not a Martin Luther King biopic. Plenty of time is also given to the supporting players. Tom Wilkinson gets plenty of room to prickle and verbally spar as the President, who is an honourable man battling with a constantly shifting list of political priorities. Carmen Ejogo is also on top form as King’s wife, who is both King’s biggest supporter and his harshest critic.
The genius of Selma is in the fact that it works as both a prestige awards season biopic and a hard-hitting issues picture. For every scene of heavily scripted pontification, there’s a sucker punch of shocking violence that means it’s impossible to lose sight of the important issues at the heart of the film.
| "I’ll be damned if history puts me with the likes of you."
Selma feels like an important cinematic work and it packs a real emotional punch, especially as it reaches its uplifting conclusion. It was cruelly overlooked by awards ceremonies, but those who see it will know that this isn’t a film that needs the leg-up provided by a golden statuette.
Pop or Poop?
David Oyelowo’s composed, subtle central performance sits at the core of Ava DuVernay’s excellent civil rights drama. Selma is Oyelowo’s film, but plenty of room is left for the supporting players to make an impact.
Ava DuVernay directs in a minimalist fashion, allowing the script and performances to take centre stage, whilst peppering the film with well-staged moments of shocking violence.
Selma will be remembered as one of the best films of the last twelve months – even if the Academy doesn’t seem to think so.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.