By Brian Surber
Never before has a film captured a cultural icon like this. This might be because Martin Luther King, Jr. is our most untainted of heroes. He is thought of as something almost mystical, something so above an ordinary person that he doesn’t even come across as a human being. He is seen as a remarkable person who has no flaws or faults, who can do no wrong because he did so much good. That’s the beautiful thing about Selma and David Oyelowo’s performance, for the first time we see just how human Martin Luther King, Jr. was and how that makes him all the more amazing.
The film, directed with incredible focus by relative newcomer Ava DuVernay, tells the story of King’s march through Selma, Alabama to protest the lack of voting rights for African-Americans. It’s a very interesting and important story to tell but not an obvious one in King’s historic life. The “I Have a Dream” speech or events leading up to his tragic death seem to be the juicier of cinematic stories, but Selma chooses a time and place so essential to his efforts that by the time the credits roll it’s clear this is the right story to tell.
In a film so devoted to one man’s journey nearly every supporting cast member gets their moment to shine. And the cast is terrific: Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King delivers a breakout performance as his strained wife (actually her second performance as Mrs. King), Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson threads the line of scenery chewing with gusto, and Tim Roth is wonderfully oily as Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. The film also has supporting roles for two younger upcoming stars in Tessa Thompson and LaKeith Lee “Keith” Stanfield. They are very talented and have a big future ahead of them; you should see them shine in Dear White People and Short Term 12.
Shot with delicate frames and lighting, but showcasing a riveting story, DuVernay controls each moment with a beautiful harmony. The film moves when it needs to and holds on moments when required. It’s a beautiful directing job. The film is delicate and shocking. We’ve seen scenes of police brutality and protests being broken up but these scenes, especially one midway through, are terribly real and hurtful. No gore is shown but each hit of a baton creates a powerful blow that is truly felt.
Selma is paramount filmmaking. It’s a story of the past that remains large and imperatively significant. Not only with the recent events in Ferguson and Florida, but all racial injustices that have occurred in American before and after King’s fateful march make this film feel necessary and somber. It’s a film about civil rights past and present. Selma isn’t just one of the best films and the year but it’s without a doubt the most important.
What makes Selma not only relevant but riveting is the work of David Oyelowo as Martin himself. Oyelowo takes a man who we see as flawless and makes him human. His portrayal or Martin Luther King, Jr. is one filled with doubt, sadness, unease, anxiety, and guilt. He infuses him with human qualities and in doing so makes the character real and startling. Oyelowo presents King with conflictions and motivations gives his actions all the more weight and gravity. He grieves, feels responsible, questions his decisions, and is unsure. These are traits we do not think of when we think of MLK and this is what makes the performance and film so special. His larger-than-life speeches have more meaning and the power of his voice is infinitely more powerful. It’s truly a performance for the ages and certainly the best performance of the year.
Selma takes a story of a small victory in a large fight. It’s a thrilling film that’s expertly made. What’s most remarkable though is the film’s ability to take possibly the most important figure in American history and make him a real complicated human being who did extraordinary things. It’s a film that should and will be shown and studied for decades. Selma reaches to the past to comment on the present, showing us that anyone can make a difference and have a dream.