In the early to mid 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelewo) leads the Black Civil Rights Movement's non-violent elements in a determined push to have the voting rights for blacks given legally enforced freedom from racist barriers. One of the key protests is a 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital. Or it would be if the racist sheriffs and Governors let it and if President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) would only intervene. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
By focusing on specific events in the lead up to the change of America's voting rights act in 1965, director Ava DuVernay's powerful drama about Martin Luther King Jnr. has maximum clout. Paul Webb's screenplay begins with King's acceptance of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and concentrates on the subsequent 12 months in which the historic march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery takes place, forcing change from the White House in the form of the 1965 Voting Rights act.
It's a role of a lifetime for classically trained English actor David Oyelowo, whose distinguished performance ably embodies the physicality and essence of the pastor, humanitarian and human rights activist. While the film provides a backdrop depicting the political climate at the time, it also explores King the man, as he contemplates his thoughts and airs his doubts with his closest advisors at a volatile time.
Context is everything and Webb's story quickly goes to the crux of the issue by describing the impossible process in place that denies the basic right for Negroes to vote. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma local who attempts to register for voting rights but is denied by systematic intimidation. Winfrey (one of the producers of the project) is effective in the role, wearing butterfly-shaped spectacles, as was the fashion of the day and blending in with the 60s production design.
Most effective is the portrayal of King and his commanding presence as an inspiring speaker and communicator. The scenes in which he calmly talks to his advisors are fascinating, as rationality prevails. He seems far less in control of his personal affairs - the scene in which his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) confronts her husband about infidelities is both subtle and poignant. We also become aware of the 'fog of death' that surrounds them both, as death threats become a reality.
The devastation of police brutality through the first protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is hard to watch as the Troopers turn on the peaceful protesters. 'There are no words to soothe you; God was the first to cry for your boy,' King tells a grieving father whose son has been brutally shot. We are there for the backroom conversations and the world watches as thousands of white Americans flock to Selma to join the protest.
Tom Wilkinson is formidable as President Lyndon Johnson and the bitter conflict between the President and the civil rights activist is effectively portrayed. Also notable is the presence of Dylan Baker as J. Edward Hoover, Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace and Giovanni Ribisi as Lee C. White.
This is a powerful drama that allows us to relive and understand important events that changed the world. It's a fascinating insight.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The trivia fact that Selma and Salem are anagrams of each other is only relevant because as were the 17th witch hunts of Salem, the 20th century racist witch hunts of Selma (and other places) were also propelled by the bigoted ignorance of people who had lost all moral understanding about humanity - or had never had it.
Students of history and those who should study this tumultuous episode in American history will be shocked to learn how recently (within my own lifetime) such primitive practices were normal in modern America. It needs to be megaphoned around the world as a warning to those who continue those practices: eventually, they will be swept away and condemned by the broom of collective moral outrage, as was slavery, which was the antecedent, progenitor or evil father of Selma and its era.
I do like Ava DuVernay's film for the opportunity to consider in cinematically visceral terms this profoundly important piece of history. (She has worked in just about every facet of filmmaking and music, too, and was born in 1972 - shortly after the events depicted in this film.) David Oyelewo is impressive as Martin Luther King Jr, his inner turmoil, his determination and courage - as well as a teensy bit of his flaws - emerging as a credible characterisation. The half hidden 'but' is to do with the all too easy portrayal of the key white guys as the hideous thugs, and the blacks as saints. Movie-symbols of black hats / white hats in reverse ... The oversimplification mars the authenticity, even if that's quite understandable.
This is perhaps underscored by the fact that many of those so portrayed are great actors, from Tim Roth as George Wallace to Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover and Stan Houston as Sheriff Jim Clark. Oprah Winfrey (one of the producers, too) signed on as brutalised activist Annie Lee Cooper, possibly for purely emotional reasons. But there is much of that in this film: it's emotional in the way it is photographed, scored and directed. And perhaps, so it should be ...
Email this article
CAST: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Martin Sheen,, Cuba Gooding Jr, Dylan Baker, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Niecy Nash, Keith Stanfield, Nigel Thatch
PRODUCER: Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey
DIRECTOR: Ava DuVernay
SCRIPT: Paul Webb
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Bradford Young
EDITOR: Spencer Averick
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: StudioCanal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 12, 2015 (special advance screenings week prior)