Selma made me angry. Seeing the willful ignorance from the white South in the 1960s and the disgusting horrors they inflicted on the African-American citizens there made me angry. It wasn’t just loathing of the perpetrators, but the fact that these events really happened and they’re still happening today. Yes, Selma made me angry, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
The film tells the story of the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol of Montgomery. The march is led by Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in a bid to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans in Alabama. The opposition included brutal Selma sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), and, to a degree, civil rights-minded President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). There’s been a lot of talk recently of how LBJ is painted as a bad guy in this film, but that’s not the case at all. LBJ did what he needed to, but did so after receiving the proper prodding. The story of Selma is saddening, maddening, and uplifting all at once. The treatment of the African-American citizens by the Alabama State Police is brutal, but as we learn from the film, it was what Martin Luther King was counting on.
One thing that is great about Selma is that it doesn’t treat Dr. King as a saint or a cut above other men. Yes, he was a great man, but he was a man. The film does a very good job at humanizing Dr. King and showing that he was quite pragmatic and even calculating in his approach to civil rights. He knew that provoking a response from those in authority would bring press and press would put more American eyes on the situation and eventually lead to change. The film also further humanizes Dr. King in his interactions with other people, especially his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). We see him as a friend, father, husband, and mentor, among the other roles he played during his life. Dr. King is shown having doubts that his goals will ever be fulfilled. This King in particular will be unfamiliar to audiences who only know him for his stirring speeches.
Director Ava DuVernay and Writer Paul Webb hit all the right beats in the story, drawing the audience in and making them care about the characters on the periphery of the struggle and not just focusing exclusively on Dr. King. They conjure the right emotions to make Selma an incredibly moving experience. The dialogue can get a little preachy in parts, as if some of the characters are reciting speeches to each other, but it is a small quibble in a film this good and this important.
Oyelowo is fantastic as Dr. King. He captures both the power of his public speaking and the gravitas of the man as he held the world on top of his shoulders. His performance is mesmerizing and eye-opening as well. His Dr. King is a man who represents many things to many different people and Oyelowo highlights all the facets of this great, complicated man. Ejogo is the spitting image of Coretta Scott King and she brings grace and determination to the role. You feel for her as she relates how her life is slipping away from her to be consumed by the movement. Wilkinson is very good as LBJ, while Roth is perfectly despicable as Wallace. The supporting cast is great as well, with too many names to list. Every performance tells part of the story and if the filmmakers had chosen ten different side characters to focus on, they could have told ten different stories, but they would have just been aspects of the story of Selma as a whole.
Selma is not only one of the best films of the year, it is one of the most important. These events took place a mere fifty years ago and while America has come a long way in the struggle for true racial equality, there is still a lot of work left to be done. The echoes of current events from across the country are both sobering and infuriating. Anchored by the fantastic work of David Oyelowo, the film is a must-see.