Call it unfortunate timing or dumb luck, but rarely is there ever a film that comes at just the right time. A film that is able to capture the current zeitgeist almost accidentally, but still feels like a response to the status quo. It is currently 2015, yet we’re still struggling with racial profiling, police brutality towards minorities and a justice system that allows the police to get away with murder given punishment that is basically a slap on the wrist. The last few months of 2014 have obviously been incredibly rough for a lot of people. Though I will say that what makes this country so great is that we can go through the most trying of times and still progress as a society. This hopeful attitude is the core of Selma, and it is one of those films that not only perfectly capture the complicated feelings that everyone is going through given some of the recent tragedies, it shows us that even at our darkest times there is still a brighter future ahead that is waiting for us as long as we’re willing to work for it.
The film is a dramatization of, what is considered to be, the most pivotal moment in the American Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. We follow the process that Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) took in his campaign to secure the voting rights of African Americans as he deals with the public, local governments and even President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
It’s very easy to look at the marketing material or a simple read on Selma’s synopsis and consider the film to be Oscar bait, or worse, a white-guilt film (an idea that I personally find incredibly self-serving and ridiculous). However, Selma is a film that avoids most of the typical qualities of what many consider Oscar bait. What director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb intend to do is taking a humanist look at an important historical event through a contextual gaze that allows us to understand the real struggles that African Americans went through. The characters are not caricatures pleading for the audience’s sympathy they are there to simply showcase what these people did to achieve basic human rights. One could make an argument that some of the supporting characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could’ve been, but that would be missing the point. This film is not a story of individuals, but a story of people coming together as a group as they fight for what they believe is right. The characters are defined by their actions, and it’s those actions that push the story and its message.
David Oyelowo is brilliant in his honest, human and vulnerable portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. His voice, inflections and mannerisms are impeccably spot-on, but it’s the way he brings the near-mythical aspects of the civil rights leader to a grounded level that really makes his performance reach its high notes. Carmen Ejogo is also given moments to shine as Coretta Scott King. The supporting actors including Oprah Winfrey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson, among many, many others do a good job as well. There isn’t a weak link in the large cast and there is a clear effort made by everyone to be on the top of their game. Even Oprah Winfrey, a casting choice that some might seem as distracting does a very good job in a minor role. People forget that she’s actually a very good actress (The Color Purple, anyone?). Though, I will say that the sudden and ultimately brief appearance from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen was a bit jarring.
As I watched and thought more about Selma, I find myself thinking about Steven Spielberg’s 2012 masterpiece, Lincoln. It’s not so much the surface level civil rights issues that the films addressed which caught my attention, but the way they both went about exploring their subjects. Both films are not big biopics that take you through the entire life of a single character; they instead take a smart approach by focusing on a specific moment. They focus on a moment where everything that contextualizes their subjects is brought to the forefront and given a very in-depth and procedural approach to telling that story. Lincoln showed how the President was willing to take part in dirty politics in order to push The Thirteenth Amendment, and Selma shows Martin Luther King Jr. as a brilliant strategist who understood the power of media and essentially how to “sell” the movement to people who would have otherwise looked the other way. For the first time that there is a big Hollywood biopic on Martin Luther King Jr. this is definitely the smartest way they could’ve possibly approached it.
Aside from David Oyelowo’s performance, the other big breakthrough is director Ava DuVernay. This is her third feature film (plus one documentary), but they have been independently financed, lower budget film. For her to take on a big budget prestige picture is an ambitious, yet daunting task, and she knocks it out of the park. She adds just enough style to make the film more cinematic than your typical prestige film, yet never too stylized to undermine the message that she is trying to get across. The Bloody Sunday sequence alone is one of the most powerful pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time. It would be impossible to not also mention the gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young. With Selma and his stellar work with A Most Violent Year, he is becoming one of the best working today. There is a clear vision in the film and everyone in the crew works to the best of their abilities to make that vision achieve fruition.
There is a quote by Roger Ebert that he said in the recent documentary Life Itself, where he said that films to him were “a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s a philosophy on films that I share as well and Selma perfectly captures this. It’s a film about the hopes and dreams of a group of people and the lengths they will go to achieve it, despite the obstacles. It’s powerful call for empathy that prevents itself from being too heavy handed by masterful direction by Ava DuVernay, a fantastic script by Paul Webb and a show-stopping performance from David Oyelowo. All these elements work together to make the film work on a dramatic and emotional level. It’s not only a look at the past, but it’s a good showcase on how we can unite and progress in the present and future. Not only is Selma one of the best films of 2014, it is quite possibly the best film on the civil rights movement period.