MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Historical Drama/Stars: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, E. Roger Mitchell, Dylan Baker, Ledisi Young, Kent Faulcon, Niecy Nash, Corey Reynolds, Wendell Pierce, John Lavelle, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Lakeith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Stan Houston, Tim Roth, Nigél Thatch, Stephen Root, Michael Papajohn, Jeremy Strong, Tara Ochs, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Michael Shikany, Martin Sheen/Runtime: 128 minutes
I think it can be safely said that there are just some people in the pantheon of historical figures who a traditional bio-pic entry in the realm of cinema would simply just not be enough. The reason I bring this up is because I think celebrated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr is most assuredly one of those people. Not because he doesn’t deserve one, but rather because the man and his accomplishments are such that I feel a simple 2 to 2 and a half hour slice of cinema would not even be enough to properly cover them all. Perhaps this is the reason why even though King has been a supporting character in quite a few cinematic properties including the fantastic Malcolm X biography from 1992, The Long Walk Home from 1990, and 2013’s The Butler, the only stab at making a full-on bio-pic about Dr. King as of this writing has been a three-part miniseries from 1978 that starred Paul Winfield as King. Yet despite this truly iconic man and his accomplishments being perhaps a bit much for a single slice of cinema to cover, there is one film that I feel does the man justice by focusing on a single moment that I feel represents King and his legacy perfectly which would be 2014’s Selma. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that, much in the same vein as 2012’s equally brilliant Lincoln, chooses to focus on a particular episode in the life of its subject, but also infuses it with levels of political wheeling and dealing, shrewd insight into the situation and what is really at stake, and rich characterizations across the board by a truly gifted cast of game performers. Suffice it to say that whilst we as movie goers may never get to see a proper MLK biopic, we should be thankful for this slice of cinema for how it manages to take us to the heart of this great man at one of his most iconic moments in a legacy that is full to the brim with them and shows us not only why it mattered then, but why it continues to matter now and always will.
The plot is as follows: Selma opens its riveting tale as we see that, in the aftermath of being the recipient of the Nobel Prize in late 1964 for his accomplishments in nonviolently protesting racial bias and prejudice in the United States, celebrated activist Martin Luther King Jr. is very much aware that the African American community still has a ways to go before they are treated on the equal footing they rightfully deserve. This is because even though segregation has been struck down in the Southern United States, African Americans were still being refused their right to vote through terror, cruelty, and severely outdated local laws. Complicating matters even further is that, in the wake of the tragic assassination of President Kennedy, the new Johnson administration in the White House is putting a pause on the African American voting dilemma even if Johnson wants King to continue leading the movement for civil rights due to preferring King’s non-violent methodology to that of his more volatile counterpart Malcolm X. Suffice it to say that it isn’t long before King comes to the conclusion that until African Americans can get people in office who will support them on the same level as their white constituents, African Americans will sadly continue to see their basic rights denied to them. It is with that in mind that we see King and his team discover that a town in Alabama known as Selma is one that might just be a brilliant place to start fighting for this reform due to both its proximity to the state capitol in Montgomery, but also due to a courthouse in the vicinity being the one to hold all the voter registration forms. Thus can King’s mantra of negotiate, demonstrate, and nonviolence win the day yet again but, perhaps just as importantly, at what cost? Not only to King and his team, but to those who believe in the same dream as he does even under the threat of assault or worse?
Now despite only, at that particular point in time, having only helmed a pair of low-budget films in the run up to this one’s release, I think it can safely be said that film helmer Ava DuVernay does a wonderful job here at making a quite sweeping and expressive movie that does a brilliant job at compare/contrasting the ground level work being done by King in Selma with his attempts to lobby President Johnson in the White House as well as with looks at the everyday people who find themselves caught up and affected in some way by the events in Selma, and a brilliant look at how even within the Civil Rights movement there was conflict between the non-violent approach being preached by Dr. King and his team and aggressive tactics that other factions preferred and which were utilized by no less a figure than Malcolm X. Yet despite the scope of this slice of cinema being fairly bigger than any that Miss DuVernay had taken on up to that point in time, she handles this film remarkably well. Indeed this is a slice of cinema that was not only actually shot in the real city of Selma, but is also one that is gorgeously set up even when what we are seeing unfold is nowhere near as beautiful with particular regard to such moments as the “Bloody Sunday” showdown between the marchers and police/troops of National Guard. Indeed DuVernay and her team do a gut wrenching job of making that scene not only as potent as possible, but almost make you feel every sickening blow that the police or National Guard land on the innocent marchers. Yet for all of those moments like that in this film, I still think this particular slice of cinema is one that proves to be at its most gripping emotionally when it chooses to place its concentration on a significantly more low-key and solemn scene depicting King, either by himself or with a few of his most trusted team members, when he is looking at the conclusion of yet another long day and still, very much like a star quarterback, trying to figure out what their next play is.
Of course, all the technical work behind the camera can be top-flight in every sense of the word, but if the work that is done in front of the camera doesn’t match that caliber of excellence then the film will suffer for it overall and the subject matter it is trying to regale us with might lose a bit of its intended potency and impact. Thankfully, I can honestly say that this is most certainly not the case here. Indeed that is because the performances in front of the camera are all downright electric in every sense of the word and most assuredly measures up to the powerful work done behind the camera in every single way possible. This starts with David Oyelowo and I must admit: he is without a doubt downright phenomenal in the lead role of Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed not only does Oyelowo do a wonderful job at showcasing King’s passion and immense degree of heart, but just as importantly he also showcases just how charismatic the man was as not only one of the more iconic leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but also as a truly gifted public speaker as well. Yet perhaps the best and most emotionally gripping facet of Oyelowo’s performance is how we also see the human side to King not only in his moments of doubt and weariness as we see his plans for him and his followers continue to come up short much to his anguish thus causing him to doubt himself and his leadership capabilities, but also in his moments where he is stricken with enormous amounts of guilt when incidents that occur during this campaign in the Civil Rights Movement lead to people getting seriously hurt or, in some of the more raw moments, worse. In fact one of the most emotionally gripping if not downright heartwrenching moments in the entire slice of cinema is not some grand proverbial “big movie moment”. Instead, it’s a moment between King and an older man who has just tragically watched as his loving and devoted grandchild has just been shot and killed by a white cop right in front of him. Indeed not only does the director do a wonderful job of showing at how both men start to well up as they think in unison about how just much injustice there is to be found in the circumstances they are fighting, but we also see as King respectfully and reverently put his hand on the grieving grandfather’s shoulder and promise that he will get the chance to vote thereby making sure his grandson didn’t die in vain. Indeed it is in moments like this where Oyelowo the actor disappears and you literally feel like you are watching colorized footage of the actual MLK. Indeed it’s that powerful and why Oyelowo didn’t win the Best Actor Oscar for this performance is still beyond me. Indeed it’s that powerful and that gripping. Yet even with all of that praise for Oyelowo and his work in this slice of cinema being said I’m not gonna lie to you dear reader: as impressive as the performance Oyelowo gives as MLK, the support cast that has been assembled is just as magnetic as he is. Indeed every single role in this from Tom Wilkinson (who 99.5% of the time he shows up in something I’ve enjoyed seeing him) who does a fairly commendable job at playing an exasperated yet human LBJ, Tim Roth who is appropriately deplorable as infamous and notorious Alabama Governor George Wallace, Dylan Baker who is perfectly slimy as legendary Director of the F.B.I (and someone who actually kept tabs on MLK) J. Edgar Hoover, Carmen Ejogo who is low key yet passionate and supportive as MLK’s loving yet constantly concerned wife Coretta Scott King, and all the way to Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Colman Domingo, and Common as King’s fellow freedom fighters and even extended cameo roles from a wonderful Cuba Gooding Jr. & the always enjoyable Martin Sheen as noted civil rights attorney Fred Gray and noteworthy District Judge Frank Minnis Johnson respectively all manage to take what the material is giving them and really soar in terms of their performances and their work in this slice of cinema. Indeed I know it is not often that I find myself able to say this, but I must confess to you dear reader that this is one cast where there is not a single weak link to be found no matter how big or small the respective role may be and who all manage to do a beautiful and respectful job at bringing the world contained within this slice of cinema as strongly and vividly to life as they ultimately wind up doing.
All in all it may be no less a time span than over five solid decades since the iconic Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr led a historic procession of Americans on a march in pursuit of equal voting rights for all Americans regardless of race or creed from Selma, Alabama all the way to the state capitol building located a few days walking distance away in Montgomery, but I can still say with pride that gifted film helmer Ava DuVernay manages to do an absolutely outstanding job at taking us back in time so we can look back on the events of that particular chapter in American History with downright brilliant degrees of riveting timeliness, pathos-driven force, and just pure and unfiltered filmmaking skill and craftsmanship in 2014’s slice of cinema “Selma”. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that is thankfully nowhere even remotely close to being either the run of the mill biopic, or drawn out and elongated lesson in history that another less skilled film helmer could have unfortunately transformed this slice of cinema into (or perhaps worst of all one that was not only campy and not in a good way by any stretch of the imagination, but also one that completely and utterly threw everything including the kitchen sink into the production to see if it would give the film any gravitas), but rather stands on its own two feet and operates as a spot-on glimpse into both the civil rights movement, to say nothing of one of its proudest and most legendary champions, at a critical stage that proves to be as on-point with its political analysis as it is with its psychological study thus giving the audience a refreshing look at a take on Dr. King that, whilst still possessing of the iron-clad will and determination to help the people by any means necessary, also shows wonderfully human moments of exhaustion and worry that all his efforts are going to go absolutely nowhere. Suffice it to say then that when you strengthen this slice of cinema even further with a phenomenal script from Paul Webb, a truly iconic and authentically human lead performance from David Oyelowo, and a collection of supporting performances that no matter how big or small are all downright magnetic in their own right then what you are left with is a slice of cinema that is one that both more “awards films” could learn a thing or two from and that should most assuredly be shown in American History classes across the United States for years and years to come. On a scale of 1-5 I give Selma “2014” a solid 4 out of 5.