The Academy award nominations were announced in California, which was Hollywood’s night to celebrate the great performances on and off camera. One of the potential frontrunners in the acting category was noticeably absent–Selma. The Oprah Winfrey produced biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. stars relatively unknown British actor David Oyelowo (Interstellar) as King Jr., his wife Coretta Scott King is played by fellow British actress Carmen Ejogo (The Purge: Anarchy) and Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins) as President Johnson.
The film documents America during a three-month period in 1965 during a campaign to secure equal voting rights, marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
The strongest aspects of the film, in my opinion, were the acting and characters. The purpose of a film is to introduce you to a group of characters, make you care about them, and tell an impacting story. All of the cast delivers. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch.
This film shows a very human side to this particular moment in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Oyelowo captures King as a dynamic speaker and speechwriter, an influential member of the community, a husband, and a father. Ejogo gives Coretta Scott King an equally strong presence, as a woman trying to support her husband suffering many and numerous setbacks and trials.
A particular scene reminds the audience that we’re watching a story about real people who on more than one occasion feel pressure, when Mrs. King tearfully confesses that more than one person has threatened the lives of the King children. We see a woman trying to keep her family together–to protect the ones she loves. In the end Coretta Scott King supports her husband.
The film opens with King receiving his Nobel Peace prize. He’s trying to practice his speech and is frustrated with his tie. Mrs. King fixes it and the two share a very genuine, believable moment. There are good moments throughout the film that refresh the audience’s mind, these were real people, we need to see and believe them as real people to connect with their story.
There’s a simple shot early in the film that speaks volumes and shows a side of Martin Luther King Jr. that isn’t always depicted. It’s just King in the backyard of his home, playing with his children, and his wife watching on. It may seem mundane to some, but further along in the film when we see just what being the head of this movement does to King and his wife and their family, it has much more impact.
Frequently, as King would be out, away from home for long periods of time, Coretta Scott King would stay with her children. Receiving harassing phone calls, one particular caller recorded an alleged affair between King and another woman. The director intentionally held a shot on Dr. King when interrogated by Coretta of possibly infidelity. These plot points may feel odd to some, but it sets up one of America’s heroes as a regular person. Just regular people trying to keep their marriage and their family together is what the audience can connect with. King plays with his kids, interacts with his wife, he works with the people of Selma, and he jokes with friends. It’s a refreshing change in pattern from Oscar nominated biopics.
The film has been accused of vilifying then President Lyndon B. Johnson. I didn’t see any vilification. I see it as another honest portrayal. The role of presidency isn’t any easy one (as some of us sometimes would fail to see) no matter what he would do, he’d be judged and criticized. By the end of the film, interacting with Tim Roth’s Alabama Governor George Wallace, Johnson formally announces his support of the march. Johnsons says to him “George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985.” Wallace is arguably the film’s villain. According to the film’s IMDB page, Roth actually was alive during this time, he supposedly heard Wallace speak and thought he was “a monster” and “amazed about what came out of that mouth.” To that, I can definitely agree. Unfortunately there will be audiences who may not.
I was very impressed with and pleased with the final film. The director Ava DuVernay was able to give this monumental story of American history the respect and dignity it deserves. It doesn’t shy away from how harsh the truth of the movement is. You as the audience are watching people like Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) being savagely beaten by the good ole’ boys of Alabama with barbed wire clubs, and even whips. It’s brutal to watch. It makes you very uncomfortable. But if DuVernay and her team didn’t show the whole truth of the movement, it wouldn’t have the same impact.
It gets especially hard when we see actress Lorraine Toussaint (recently seen playing Vee in Orange is the New Black) get brutally attacked, and Oprah get violently shoved to the ground. There are a few triggering scenes, a young protester Jimmie Lee Jackson is shot by the police in front of his mother and grandfather after being chased off the streets into a diner, tear gas is used on nonviolent protesters, people of all religions, races, and genders are dehumanized and harassed, all over the rights to vote. A right that has been taken for granted by many today.
I won’t lie, if the coverage on the news is bothersome to some, or emotionally triggering or bothersome to you in particular, I completely understand. However, I would recommend at least one viewing. Maybe on Redbox. Some of the images (tear gas, the national guard using a whip) are incredibly hard to watch. I didn’t realize it until I left the theater, but I was gritting my teeth and my jaw was sore. As the credits rolled I just sat in my seat, trying to think about what I watched.
It was a good film; the story important and had an impact on me. The performances were powerful (and I’m going to say it, I think Oyelowo deserved a nomination from the Academy) and memorable. But the images of the march and the violence these real life people endured were very haunting.
As I bring myself to the end of this review, I’m trying to figure out how exactly I should end this. There’s so much more touched on the film that I didn’t get to in this review. I definitely recommend a viewing, either in theaters or any other means accessible to college students. The content may be hard to watch at times, but in the long run the message and the story are a part of American culture. While the acting hasn’t gotten strong recognition hopefully there’s a Best Picture Oscar out there with Selma’s name on it.
Final Verdict: 10/10