A powerful dramatisation of Martin Luther King’s final battle, Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a moving account of the march on racism and the man behind the movement.
The King's Speechby Mark Wilshin
First 12 Years A Slave and now Selma, Obama’s administration is changing the face of filmmaking in the United States. And there’s no doubt Selma is a film that needed to be made. Taking for its focus Martin Luther King’s battle in 1965 for the legal implementation of the USA’s black population’s right to vote in Selma, Alabama rather than his assassination three years later, Selma is a film about a movement rather than just a man. And while it peels away to the leader’s worry for his flock and his tactical brinkmanship with President Johnson, Selma delights in its breadth of characters and its movement en masse – a collective united by a dream.
In 1964 Martin Luther King (David Oyewolo) is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his successes against segregation and winning for black Americans the right to vote. And yet, back in the US, ordinary black men and women are denied this right – including Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) – due to a roster of criteria the white administration are eager to uphold. King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to press the issue which keeps persecutors of racist violence free from justice, due to the white sheriffs voted in by a white electorate and an all-white jury. Stalling the issue, King goes into action, relocating to Selma – the perfect battleground for a non-violent war on continued prejudice. And as he whips up support from the pulpit, and leads marches on the courthouse, he applies increasing pressure on both the President and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). Culminating in the infamous march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to the state capital.
Punctuated with FBI reports from telephone bugs and spooks, Selma tells its story largely by using known facts and transcripts of King’s speeches. And piecing together the rival factions, including SNCC and Malcolm X, as well as King’s brinkmanship with President Johnson and Governor George Wallace’s waspish counter attacks, Selma is an important document of the SWLC movement. (And one likely to be shown in US schools around Martin Luther King Day until Kingdom come.) But it’s also a glimpse behind the curtain at the absent family man with a troubled marriage and the leader plagued with doubts – leading his unarmed troops like sheep to slaughter, an inevitable failing of resolve.
David Oyelowo as King is brilliant, capturing the warmth and tenor of the great orator in his speeches, as well as the multifaceted personality of a statesman, leader, husband and pastor. Where Selma really shines though are in its mass movements, the black march on the courthouse and the three marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge – tragedy, doubt and triumph. Selma‘s script also does well in implicating everyone in the struggle for human rights – extending the fight beyond just the black community and paying homage to the vicar and volunteer who become victims themselves of racist violence in the Deep South.
But despite powerfully emotive images of King and his movement, Selma comes apart in the final march on the Capitol – using Common’s Glory rather than any of the songs played by Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte or Sammy Davis Jnr in the concert at the Edmund Pettus bridge before the walk. Selma also ends with a finite triumphalism, which despite the murder of King three years later, suggests the end of a struggle as if the poverty and illiteracy the script alludes to just vanish. Selma ends with a protracted credits sequence in which each character is given their own moment of glory, but this appears rather unfortunately as a who’s who of black acting talent rather than a homage to the activists and victims. But nevertheless a powerful evocation of united struggle, Selma recreates an important moment in black history that resonates the world over.
Selma is released on 6th February 2015 in the UK