Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero of country, one’s whose lessons still fall on too many deaf ears almost fifty years after his death, but the story Selma tells only features him and his power among the people and isn’t trying to tell the man’s life story. In fact, its preferable in this case. The complexities surrounding the events of Selma are more than enough to fill up a film with the only real digression being to the 16th Street Baptist Church in the beginning of the film which incited a more dramatic need for change in the country. Before moving on, that sequence was an incredible piece of filmmaking by director Ava DuVernay who brutally brings the death of those 4 little girls to life without ever getting explicit.
From here, the film artfully glides back and forth between the events in Selma, the deliberations in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and King’s own domestic issues at home. MLK is the film’s guide as we follow him for the majority of the film, only leaving him to show some big moments that he was out of town for in Selma. David Oyelowo is great as the late preacher and he is able to humanize the man as well as display his power as an orator and strategist in this civil right battle. The relationship with his wife was one of the more surprising elements of the film as it really added a layer to everything that he was battling on every end of his life. The tumultuous nature of his home life can’t compare to the violence enacted on people in Selma, but the turmoil in his life provides another plate for King to balance as he tries to change history.
The events in Selma are recreated to brutal effect with one of the saddest scene of the year taking place in this film. After a man is shot down, unarmed, his grandfather sits outside the coroner’s office when he meets King for the first time as he comes to give his condolences. The performance by the old man, played by Henry G. Sanders, is incredible. Weeping for his grandson, the pride and astonishment he has when he meets King is palpable, and he only gets better as he uselessly tries to explain the senseless and pointless murder of his grandson. Just a crushing scene. DuVernay’s skill is shown in even more grand fashion during the “Bloody Sunday” segment on the bridge leading out of Selma as they try to march to Birmingham. The sequence is as intense, powerful and unsettling as anything you will see this year in a theater; made all the worse that it really happened. DuVernay uses music to such powerful effect in the film and it is no different here as she underscores the chaos and violence with the perfect cue.
Oyelowo deserves a ton of praise for his performance and it is great to see him finally get a lead in a big movie like this and show off what he is capable of. I have liked him in pretty much everything he has done up until Selma and was happy to see him not disappoint in the spotlight. He nails King’s power and presence as I found myself hoping that any future movie about King just signs him up again to play the part. The supporting cast in the film is huge, but everyone is turning in great work. Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson are both hotheaded and calculated as George Wallace and Johnson. Carmen Ejogo I don’t recall ever seeing before, but she is excellent as Coretta Scott King in a role that could have very easily gotten naggy, but she carries herself and her problems with Martin more dignified than he might have deserved. To rattle off everyone elses name that is good in this film would take too long, but everyone is great and they all play to the ensemble without ever trying to steal the spotlight from the gravity of the story.
Selma is about as compelling as historical fiction can get and is sadly still extremely relevant and not just a look back into history. DuVernay has crafted a film that speaks across the times and shows us that we can make progress in the face of some of the worst adversity.