Release Date: December 25th, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ava DuVernay Actors: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Wendell PIerce
fter receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in late 1964 for his efforts against racial prejudice, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) knows his people still have a long way to go before achieving equality. Despite the end of segregation in the South, blacks are still denied their right to vote through intimidation, fear, and outmoded regulations. The White House wishes to combat poverty first, based on a political agenda for President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), hoping to push the voting issue aside for later. But King realizes that until blacks can control their own destinies by electing officials who will support them in government, they’ll continue to have basic freedoms oppressed.
Selma, Alabama proves to be the perfect starting point for reform, with the groundwork already laid by not only the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) but also the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Whereas the previous Albany movement attempted to tackle widespread segregation and was met with low-key local responses, Selma provides an opportunity to target a specific citadel for sieging: the courthouse, home to the voter registration forms. But simply checking into a hotel is a dangerous endeavor, as King is immediately met with an outraged white man who punches him in the face.
Though Johnson wants King to continue helming the civil rights movement, as his nonviolent methods are more palatable than the volatile retaliation of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), the President isn’t prepared for King’s determination in forcing the voting dilemma. J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker, far removed from Clint Eastwood’s version of the FBI director) is tasked with dismantling King’s home dynamic by terrorizing his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and bugging phone calls. King’s credo of negotiation, demonstration, and resistance is far more persevering than the administration had anticipated, eventually paving the way for voting equality – though several protests en route will foment death and bloodshed.
A wiretapping narrative device that logs whereabouts and communications appears annoying at best, while the easily recognizable Oprah Winfrey, in a brief part as Annie Lee Cooper, does her best to take audiences out of the realism. But neither is enough to shatter the revelatory performance of Oyelowo, who mesmerizingly disappears into the role of a lifetime. His speeches, actions, and moving words never betray histrionic impersonating, instead fully convincing with authentic mannerisms, articulation, and appearance (akin to Daniel Day-Lewis’ stunning turn in “Lincoln”).
Extreme injustice, especially when it recounts factual moments from history, is an easy avenue of emotional manipulation. But “Selma” doesn’t rely solely on sentimentality or graphic mistreatment to force its propensity for tears; it wisely uses affective montages, orchestral music, tight pacing, and award-worthy acting (with piercing expressions) to supplement the intense recreations of iconic undertakings – including the conflict between opposing viewpoints of protesting, the contemporary environment of Vietnam and high profile assassinations, large-scale demonstrations at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and notable deaths. As it highlights the influences of marching, uniting fronts, exploiting the media, and gathering victims to inspire sympathy and support, the film perceptively covers just the crucial events around “Bloody Sunday” and “Turnaround Tuesday,” without cinematizing all the way up to King’s murder in 1968, which would have left his accomplishments obscured by such a disheartening scene. Bravely, “Selma” also sheds light on King’s character flaws, rather than choosing the uncomplicated route of showing breakthroughs alone. Intelligently scripted and perfectly balanced, the entire biographical production is a nearly flawless exercise in adapting powerful historical drama.
– Mike Massie