After half a century of Hollywood neglect, Martin Luther King Jr finally gets the movie he deserves with director Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a magnificently stirring and impassioned film dominated by a superb, awards-worthy lead performance by David Oyewolo.
DuVernay doesn’t take a cradle-to-grave biopic approach to her subject but focuses instead on a single highly charged episode in the struggle to achieve Civil Rights for America’s black citizens: the 1965 protest march, masterminded by King, from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital Montgomery.
The episode reveals King the canny political strategist rather than speech-maker, although his inspirational oratory does play its part as he tries to manoeuvre foot-dragging US President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into passing a Voting Rights Act that will outlaw the pettifogging discriminatory practices designed to keep black voters off the electoral rolls.
King’s choice of Selma is astute. A bastion of the Deep South, its redneck police force and bigoted officials can be guaranteed to act with a heavy hand when King’s non-violent organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), joins local black people to mount the protest. King’s aim is to create a drama to play out via the media on a national rather than purely local stage; to raise white rather than black consciousness; and to rouse empathy rather than guilt or fear.
Designed to provoke a backlash, the strategy has its costs, as DuVernay makes terrifyingly clear when the black protestors peacefully attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the edge of Selma. On horseback and on foot, armed with barbed-wire clubs and bullwhips, the white cops descend on the marchers with thuggish ferocity. When the mayhem is broadcast across the States, white liberals and clergy flock to Selma to offer their support, tilting the struggle irrevocably in King’s favour.
The bridge assault is the film’s centrepiece and DuVernay conveys its appalling mayhem with controlled outrage and chilling clarity. But she is equally good at the smaller-scale scenes in which King and his team debate their tactics or when King locks horns with Johnson in the White House. Critics have pounced on the script’s unsympathetic portrayal of Johnson as a historical distortion, it has to be said, but Selma is far from being a hagiography of King, either.
Oyewolo’s King is no plaster saint and his impressively nuanced performance contains many different shades, including doubt and anger. His infidelities aren’t ignored either, and the pain they cost his loyal wife, Coretta Scott King, is sharply etched by Carmen Ejogo. Yet if the film’s King has feet of clay, he remains a giant. And Oyewolo brilliantly conveys his incandescent gifts as well as his frailties, his shrewd tactical intelligence, blazing moral conviction and spellbinding rhetorical power.
The Civil Rights movement was anything but a one-man band, as DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb make clear, highlighting the contributions of such activists as Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), famous for socking racist sheriff Jim Clark in the jaw, and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), leader of the first, violently opposed Selma march on ‘Bloody Sunday’. Most stirring of all, however, is the film’s use of black-and-white archive footage showing the actual Selma marchers, black and white, as they walked into history 50 years ago.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 128 mins. Directors Ava DuVernay.
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