Director: Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, The Door)
Writer: Paul Webb
Producers: Cassandra Kulukundis, Todd J. Labarowski, Emanuel Michael
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 127 min.
Sometimes there’s a sense that a movie is succeeding because of its timeliness and little more. It’s why there are instances of multiple biopics vying to be first out the door after a subject’s death but sometimes, it’s a little more abstract than that. That certainly appears to be the case with Ava DuVernay’s Selma which was in production long before the events of Ferguson ever happened but in the wake of that national disaster, Selma is likely to become a rallying cry for change and it’s a damned fine one at that.
Written by newcomer Paul Webb, Selma picks up in early 1965. LBJ is in office and he has a pretty good relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.. In one particular meeting, King pushes for change, namely in the ability of African Americans to vote. Johnson argues there are more important issues to deal with; he has a different agenda. King pushes ahead with the argument and along with the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group take action and their next fight to Selma, Alabama. A ripe territory for a showdown.
Du Vernay’s film isn’t simply a retelling of the events leading up to what happened in Selma. It’s also a portrait of a man who has been fighting for a long time. A man who is tired; a man who feels defeated; a man who leads but does not go on alone. Webb’s portrait of King gives the good with the bad. The film shows King to have been a great preacher, a man who could mobilise masses, but it also doesn’t shy away from King’s troubles; his infidelities, his indecision, his feeling of defeat and fighting an unwinnable fight. Mostly it creates the picture of a man who led a movement but who was only human. A man who relied on the supported by the people around him to succeed.
David Oyelowo steps up to the task of embodying King and he does so beautifully, creating what appears to be a close approximation of the man who was. Oyelowo commands attention when he’s on screen, be it either preaching or having a quietly powerful and largely wordless moment with his wife, the equally great Carmen Ejogo portraying Mrs. King. The bevy of character actors who pepper the remaining roles, everyone from Lorraine Toussaint as a King supporter and front lines activist, to Tim Roth who is quite brilliant in a small role and the snively George Wallace (his showdown with Tom Wilkinson as Johnson is the kind of scene chewing greatness I haven’t witnessed in a while), are all wonderful – regardless of how small the roles are (some could be considered walk ons).
Selma isn’t just worth seeing because it happens to be timely, a movie about the civil rights movement that comes at a time when the civil rights movement needs the extra push. Selma is worth seeing because it’s, quite simply, a great movie. Excellent performances are only the tip of the iceberg; Selma is emotional, engaging and surprisingly subtle considering how well traversed the material is.
It’s not an easy watch. The events and images in Selma are as emotionally debilitating today seen though Du Vernay’s lens (a very capable lens that captures the violence in an artistic but hugely affecting way) as they were in the 60s when they were originally televised. It may not have started as a movie to bolster a movement but Selma certainly pushes the conversation beyond the news headlines and into popular culture.
Selma should be seen widely. You should see it with your kids. It should be discussed.
Selma opens widely Friday, January 9.