Selma is a must-see film
Selma isn’t supposed to be this timely and relevant. It really should be a time capsule of a darker time in American history that we’ve all successfully moved on from, but the year’s most powerful and emotionally-gripping film seems as necessary and essential now as it did nearly 50 years ago.
Contrary to popular belief, the civil rights struggle for equal rights didn’t magically end after Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, but the battle was not fully won as Director Ava DuVernay so eloquently illustrates.
Selma continues the struggle two years later as blacks in the South are being denied the right to vote by white segregationist looking to maintain status quo prompting the Dallas County Voters League to call on the aid of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of its charismatic leaders, King (David Oyelowo in a career-defining performance).
Surprisingly, the King estate didn’t allow use any of King’s speeches in Selma, but it’s probably for the best. There’s no need for screenwriter Paul Webb and DuVernay, who penned the film’s original speeches, to use existing King material as a crutch allowing the movie to stand on its own impassioned message.
For a generation that can reduce King’s efforts to the landmark ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, this is an intimate, revealing look at King. Not as a perfect ideal champion crusader of civil rights who doggedly turned the other cheek until justice was won, but as a man who questioned his effectiveness, feared for other’s safety and dealing with conflict in his marriage to his wife, Coretta (a spitting image Carmen Ejogo). Oyelowo gets lost in the role similar to Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln (Blu-ray+DVD)” and firmly puts himself on the short list in the Best Actor Oscar race.
At the heart of the film is the shrewd game of political chess waged by King and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Two-time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson is bucking for a third with his stellar performance as the beleaguered president who finds King uncompromising in his efforts to secure legitimate voting rights.
Bradford Young’s cinematography bathes the film in a slight golden tone like a picture starting to show signs of fading, which gives the film a terrific historical context while Jason Moran’s score is majestic without coming across as forced to give lackluster scenes a greater sense of importance.
DuVernay masterfully captures the ugly insanity of racism and the complete lack of logic and vile nature of those who would violently defend efforts to continually oppress another race. DuVernay makes it fittingly difficult to watch people getting savagely attacked, whipped, gassed and killed without being gratuitous.
It’d be too easy to paint the issue as a black vs. white problem, especially after white officers shoot an unarmed black man (how disturbing is it that this statement could be said as easily in 2014 as it was in 1965?) — but DuVernay shows the outrage of members of other races and religions reminding viewers that whites and Jews alongside King and were insulted, beaten and even killed standing up for equal rights for everyone.
Questionable casting choices can significantly derail the most well-intentioned biopic (see Lee Daniels’ The Butler [Blu-ray Combo]), but the ensemble neatly fits in their roles and DuVernay wisely doesn’t have her cast go big in an attempt for an award highlight clip in every scene.
Stephan James makes another strong case that he’s a star on the rise as John Lewis, Tim Roth’s George Wallace is despicable, Giovanni Ribsi is stellar as Johnson’s adviser Lee C. White, Dylan Baker is appropriately slimy as J. Edgar Hoover, Common is rock solid as James Bevel and Wendell Pierce makes prime use of his role as Rev. Hosea Williams.
Nigel Thatch’s brief cameo as Malcolm X suggests a take that could rival Denzel Washington’s Oscar worthy performance in Malcolm X (Keepcase). Some forward-thinking Hollywood exec would be wise to tap DuVernay to share X’s story with Thatch in the lead role.
Selma is a landmark film that’s equally entertaining, emotional and educational. It’s a must-see and one of 2014’s superior standout films.
Rating: 10 out of 10
**Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures