A film review by Craig J. Koban January 18, 2015


2014, PG-13, 127 mins.


David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King  /  Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Baines Johnson  /  Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King  /  Andre Holland as Andrew Young  /  Omar J. Dorsey as James Orange  /  Alessandro Nivola as John Doar  /  Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White  /  Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy  /  Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper  /  Common as James Bevel  /  Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson

Directed by Ava DuVernay  /  Written by Paul Webb

SELMA is a dark and sobering reminder of America’s grave civil rights injustices of the past.  Beyond that, it’s one of the very few feature films that I can recall that actually dealt with Martin Luther King, and as to why there have been far so few films that have either chronicled his life or his civil rights crusades is kind of damning in its own right.  Perhaps the sheer scope of his life and accomplishments couldn’t be adequately pared down into any one single film.  Outside of artistic barriers, there clearly must have been interest over the years for people to see a film that dealt with King’s struggles and the growing pains that the US went through several decades ago. 

SELMA, perhaps rather wisely, is not an obligatory and conventional biopic about King.  Rather, like LINCOLN, the film features an extremely prominent historical figure that’s placed within the larger backdrop of one event and a social-political controversy.  SELMA primarily deals with the Montgomery Marches in 1965, which were in part done to support the Selma, Alabama Voting Rights Campaign.  Both were instrumental in President Johnson passing the Voting Rights Act, one of the most significant civil rights bills of that decade.  SELMA grounds itself on the political maneuvering that existed between all parties interested in either supporting the Voting Rights Act or apposing it.  King had both an ally and an opponent in LBJ in the sense that the President acknowledged what a progressive minded act it was, but couldn’t initially acquiesce to King’s demands due to the political pressures of his time.  SELMA does indeed feature the marches – and some of the scandalous violence that erupted as a result of them – but the film becomes even more fascinating for the chess games played between politicians and social rights activists behind closed doors.



Ultimately, SELMA’s overall approach may disappoint those wanting a conventional movie biopic about MLK, but screenwriter Paul Webb understands what a daunting challenge that would have been, not to mention the difficulty in establishing the whole historical precedent that built up towards the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.  Honing in on the three month period of the King-led civil disobedience was the right call and it ultimately frames King as the gallant, headstrong, and determined leader that he was while also highlighting the tragedy of his struggles and his later assassination.  The film does a very good job of establishing the hellish voting injustices that plagued the south in the mid-1960’s, which is hammered home in the opening scene.  Here we see a black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also one of the film’s producers), pathetically try to get past the absurdly difficult literacy tests and egregious poll taxes at the voting booths that suppressed the black vote.  The poor woman makes her fourth trip to the voting bureau, but is shot down after she can’t name every Congressional judge serving.  Who could? 

Racial tensions increased with the nightmarish bombing of the Street Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963, which took the lives of four black children.  This becomes a call to arms, so to speak, for King (David Oyelowo), who decides to fully commit himself to the cause of fighting racial prejudice, but peacefully.  He sees the outright bigotry of local law enforcement and juries (all made up of whites) and hopes to make his claim for sweeping Voting Rights reform with President Johnson himself (Tom Wilkinson), but for as forward thinking as LBJ is, he can't give in to King’s request.  Realizing his political failures in Washington, King decides to launch a series of peaceful protests in the form of marches from Selma to Montgomery (a 54 mile journey) to help drive his point home to people in Alabama and to the American public as a whole.   Unfortunately, the first planned march ends in bloodshed, which leaves King and his followers left pondering whether their cause is worth the loss of life at all. 

Director Ava DuVernay does a fantastic job of historical recreation here.  She not only grounds us in the arduous day-to-day disenfranchisement of the black community living in Alabama, but she also does not pull any punches when it comes to relaying the physical atrocities that were committed during the marches themselves.  The first march (“Bloody Sunday”) is presented in a riveting and unflinching detail that thankfully does not shy away from the violence (which is quite startling, considering that the film is rated PG-13).  In moments like this, SELMA paints a condemning portrait of a country’s not-too-distant history and how society as whole came to crushing blows over something as relatively simple as upholding the US Constitution.  The film is also a sobering wake-up call reflecting how little ground was made for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.  A century later and not much had really changed for them. 

SELMA works better, I think, when it focuses on the microcosm of King’s inner circle and family life while juxtaposing his uphill battles to persuade LBJ to see the validity and necessity of his causes.  The film is wonderful for how it demythologizes King: We often see him a staggeringly assured and larger-than-life figure in archival footage, but SELMA makes attempts to humanize the man without focusing too much on some of his more scandalous indiscretions.  Webb addresses King’s infidelity, but with an unobtrusive tact, and frames the relationship that King had with his wife Coretta (a quietly empowered Carmen Ejogo) as one of not only mutual steadfast support, but also one with nagging uncertainties.  King is also shown as a fallible man, even in his own inner circle.  There are scenes where his own staunchest of supporters question his noble motives.  Overall, SELMA provides a deeply well rounded and humanistic portrait of an iconic persona.   

It would all be for naught, though, without David Olyelow's flesh-and-blood and natural performance as King.  Surely, inhabiting the mind and body of one of the most recognized and influential men of the 20thj Century is a major thespian challenge.  Olyelow is not a physical dead ringer for King, nor does he pitch-perfectly capture the man’s vocal inflections.  What Olyelow does so exceedingly well is inhabit King’s mind and spirit.  Attempting all-out mimicry or a simplistic impersonation of King would have been a misstep, but Olyelow does something finer by fully inhabiting and embracing the man’s sense of humor, delicateness, indomitable faith, grim faced perseverance, and inner strength when facing incredible personal odds.  Best of all, Olyelow – like the film’s script – grounds King on a relatable dramatic level and portrays him as a deeply inspirational, but flawed leader.  It’s a jaw-dropping scandal that the actor was not recognized by the Academy for his work here. 

SELMA does suffer from some nagging issues, though, like the fact that in its attempts to tell a self-contained narrative about a key period in King’s life it contains perhaps far too many supporting characters of interest.  There’s a lot of history and prominent historical figures thrown in here, like LBJ (for obvious reasons) as well as Governor George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover (the government did wiretap King and monitor his every movement), and even Malcolm X makes a brief appearance.  There’s a wealth of material here that, frankly, can’t be done thorough justice in a two-hour film, leaving many scenes feeling like incomplete historical highlight reels.  And for as intrinsically compelling as all of the scenes between LBJ and King are, Tom Wilkinson – an incredible performance talent, to be sure – seems peculiarly miscast as the former president.  He neither resembles LBJ nor does he even remotely sound like the ex-Commander-in-chief.  His scenes with Olyelow – dripping with low-key intensity as the two political figures verbally duke it out – are sometimes undermined and distracted by Wilkinson’s odd casting here.  

Still, SELMA has an extremely important story to tell.  It also significantly points out how the media was instrumental in assisting King on the subsequent Selma marches (images of the violence from Black Sunday persuaded many white Americans to come to King’s defense and join his people on the march).  Ultimately, I appreciated SELMA’s shrewdness in using one event in history as a larger springboard in telling King’s never-ending social and civil rights endeavors.  The film has a stark intimacy with the material despite its far-reaching scope in history.  It's also steeped in rousing triumph and unforgettable tragedy.  Perhaps even more frightening is how SELMA also serves as a reminder of the current racial divide that still exists in parts of America.  Coming long after the struggles of King and his followers fifty years ago, that’s a different kind of tragedy in its own right.

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