Review: Selma (2014)

Selma

Rating

Director
Ava DuVernay
Screenplay
Paul Webb
Length
128 min.
Starring
David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Dylan Baker, Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Alessandro Nivola
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language

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Review
Setting out to do a film about one of the most important figures of the 20th Century carries with it a great deal of responsibility. Ava DuVernay takes a single segment of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and brings it to impressive life.

There were few more dangerous places in the south for black men and women than Alabama in the 1960’s. The forefront of the battle to prevent desegregation, Governor George Wallace did all in his power to prevent racial integration at the University of Alabama and later at elementary schools across the state. This powder keg reached the end of its fuse on September 15, 1963 when four members of the Ku Klux Klan detonated dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama killing four young girls in the process.

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), who would accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts at bringing an end to segregation throughout the United States, made Selma the staging grounds for a protest to end the unrealistic and prejudicial polling tests that disenfranchised the vast majority of black voters. His plan was to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state’s capitol. As a result of George Wallace’s intimidation campaign to try and prevent King and his followers from completing their journey, the state troopers he sent to create a barricade at the Edmund Pettus Bridge attacked the marchers hospitalizing 17 marchers and injuring many others. The brutal attack was televised and an outpouring of support for King led to a later successful attempt to complete the March to Montgomery.

Selma marks Ava DuVernay’s third feature film, the second to feature one of the year’s best performances. Compressing the timeline with great care, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb went to great lengths to highlight the struggles faced by many during the period and the outright hostility displayed against black people with a single area of the country standing in for the entirety of the South. The film opens with King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and then proceeds to highlight the events that empowered him, the callous murder of four innocent young girls. These girls are depicted as chatting about their dresses and frivolous matters before the explosion claims their lives. In a startling, exemplary scene, the muted sound and floating debris cutting dramatically into the film and establishing just how heinous an act had just been committed.

The rest of the film plays out more like your traditional historical drama, establishing in dramatic fashion all the small pieces that were cobbled together into one of the most stirring and empowering marches in United States history. Sticking largely to the facts in the case, we’re given a seething view of life in the 1965 for where not knowing the names of every benched judge in the entire state could mean the difference between voting and sitting on the sidelines. DuVernay carefully avoids inserting herself into events, even if it’s clear they are chosen to best exemplify the struggles being faced at the time.

Oyelowo gives a fiery, impressive performance as Martin Luther King Jr., grounding and humanizing a man whose image has taken on almost mythical proportions today. He’s depicted here as a flawed, conscientious man struggling with fidelity, seeking spiritual guidance and questioning the fervor of his rhetoric. Every death and injury sustained under his watch is a personal thorn in his psyche. Oyelowo displays the compassion and fervor of a man who cared so very deeply about the people he fought to protect.

As we have been reminded in recent history, most notably in the riots in Ferguson, MO, there is still a long way to go before we can truly say the Civil Rights movement has been a success. While we’re worlds away from the vitriolic violence of the South in the 1960’s, there are still many fights left to be won. Selma is a reminder that compassion and perseverance can bring change. It also reminds us that we cannot forget how far we’ve come even when there’s such a great distance left to go.

Finding a place where all persons, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, transgender, Christian, Muslim, Atheist and everyone in between can co-exist is a challenge that may seem forever out of reach, but men like Martin Luther King Jr. still exist today in many forms, but only when everyone stands up and joins together, from all sides of an argument can we finally achieve change.

Review Written

May 7, 2015

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