By Alan Flood
From a European point of view, it would be difficult to approach Selma without the knowledge that the film is causing a controversial stir across the water in relation to its apparent exclusion from this year’s Oscar nominations. The argument from some quarters in the States is that this proves that inherent racism exists within the Academy, others argue the film merely isn’t worthy of the Oscar nods that some feel it deserve and furthermore there is the argument, probably closer to any truth, that the film was released slightly too late to generate sufficient Oscar momentum. However, David Oyelowo’s omission from the best actor category is as glaring an injustice as there’s been for several years.
Oyelowo, of course, plays Martin Luther King in, Avu Devurnay’s Selma which is astoundingly the first feature film based on King’s life to garner a theatrical release. Paul Webb’s concise script is far from a biopic of King, it focuses solely on his third great political and social triumph, following the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the March on Washington of 1963, in 1965 King and his supporters organised several marches in Selma, Alabama in protest against the discrimination suffered by black people attempting to register to vote.
As mentioned, David Oyelowo gives a moving performance as King, his interpretations of Kings rousing and poetic speeches hit all the right notes but it is the more sombre and personal moments in which Oyelowo depicts King’s doubts and weariness that make it a great performance. Watch out particularly for the most painful scene in the film where King visits a hospital to console an elderly man whose son has been killed. Oyelowo says little in the scene, but his blood shot eyes depict a heap of emotions.
This is also true of the difficult scenes with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) which depict the difficulties within King’s home life. Indeed these difficulties lead him to vitally miss the first leg of the Selma march. Oyelowo is accompanied by a powerful supporting cast here from Opera to Cuba Gooding Junior, his supporters to his adversaries, specifically a despicable yet engrossing Tim Roth as well as Tom Wilkonson’s intriguing take on Lyndon. B. Johnson. The script is impeccably tight, a steady and consistent beat toward the predictably triumphant and emotional finale. There isn’t a scene in Avu Duvernay’s film that doesn’t need to be there, each sequence progresses the story forward at a timely pace.
Selma is everything you’d expect from an accomplished film about Martin Luther King. It showcases the vitriol and evil that King fought against in the form of local Southern law enforcement and officials as well as the added difficulty in playing politics and negotiating Washington bureaucracy. It touches briefly but adequately on his marital difficulties and his own unfaithfulness. What we walk out of Selma with is a sense of King’s bravery and courage in such a hotbed of hatrid. ‘Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe,’ he states at one point.
It’s an enjoyable and gripping film, a tight script enhanced in its accessibility with the inclusion of infamous as well as courageous men of history. It leaves us with wonderment of how far we’ve come since 1965. It could be argued quite far, given how shocking the violent images of armed white police beating peaceful black protesters are today. However, recent events in Ferguson would lead you to question how far they’ve come in the Southern United Sates. Perhaps Martin Luther King’s legacy still has further bridges to cross.