‘Selma’: The Battleground

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” offers a powerful cinematic portrayal of one of the most important protests of the civil rights era. Nominated for four Golden Globes, including best motion picture, best director and best lead actor, the movie lives up to the critical acclaim it has received so far for its outstanding performances and contemporary relevance.

“Selma” takes place at the end 1964, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination, yet African-Americans were still being denied the right to vote in the South. The promise of equality suspended in a distant dream, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) initiates the first of several meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to talk about voting rights. When LBJ refuses to sign new legislation, MLK takes up residence in Selma. The movie is not a MLK biopic, but rather a focused account on the Selma to Montgomery Marches, including the infamous “Bloody Sunday” that lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Still, from the moment the civil rights drama begins, viewers are captivated by the uncanny resemblance between Oyelowo and King. Oyelowo stares straight into the camera as he rehearses his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Based on this speech to Nobel Committee, and the numerous church sermons in later scenes, it becomes clear that Oyelowo perfected the role before filming. He mimics King’s mannerisms perfectly and almost nails the resounding oration.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for LBJ. The movie needed a Johnson as convincing as its King. LBJ was a central character, but the dynamic between Oyelowo and Wilkinson seemed off. As respected as he may be, Wilkinson was 10 years too old for the role (LBJ was 56 then) and was not intimidating or compelling. Even the infamous “We shall overcome” speech was anticlimactic.

Still, DuVernay gets the big things right, including the incredible scenes of protest. From the nonviolent demonstration outside of the Selma courthouse when Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) makes history, to the nighttime street march that results in tragedy, the emotional impact is fully felt. DuVernay creates a real sense of danger and violence throughout the movie even when the audience knows what is coming. For instance, the nationally televised deaths of two protesters are expected, but the audience will still feel immense pain. Most importantly, the scene where protesters march onto Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” is intensely gripping.

“Selma” reveals more than activism and shows us an imperfect portrait of King through his personal life. DuVernay focuses on the intimate moments between MLK and wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), with an abundance of two-person scenes. Having also played Coretta Scott King in the HBO movie “Boycott,” Ejogo knows how to convey strength and vulnerability. When the two are silent in their Atlanta home, her haunting gaze moves from fierce resentment to despair, as she remembers the constant fog of death that lingers around her family.

The movie includes other central characters of the time, including Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). As the confederate antagonist, Roth really shows his potential for future roles as a villain.

It is rare for a historical drama to have contemporary relevance, but the unjust and barbaric violence in “Selma” somewhat parallels events  happening now. As we watch, we are reminded of recent cases of racially motivated police brutality that sparked waves of protest across the nation. Police treatment of African-Americans is at the front of our minds as we watch the scenes in “Selma” where police tear-gas and bludgeon nonviolent activists in 1965. DuVernay masterfully chronicles the violence of the civil rights era and Oyelowo perfectly captures how King responded as one of nation’s greatest leaders of social change.

 

RECOMMENDED: “Selma” is a focused, intelligent and timely drama that gives everyone in America something to think about.