No 20th century figure looms as large as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and no film could possibly encapsulate who he was and what he did over the course of his short but powerful lifetime. But in "Selma," director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb find an ideal window of time through which to explore King's influence and not as a dreamer, but as a strategist.
The film examines the chess moves that took place leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a critical piece of legislation that removed many of the barriers keeping African-Americans away from the voting booth. In early 1965, King (David Oyelowo) arrives in Selma after being unable to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) of making swift changes to protect the black right to vote. Knowing the only way he can make change is to double dow on peaceful protest and make more headlines in the news, he begins planning with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and ultimately challenges Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), risking lives in order to get the federal government to act.
Emotion layers every part of "Selma," but Webb's script has a definitive focus on tactics and explores the political maneuvering behind affecting actual change. Today, we regard the Civil Rights Movement and King's methods as one of the most effective efforts to enact social and political change and "Selma" shows just how calculated - not impulsive - those methods were.
At the same time, the film suggests King was riddled with doubt. The man we know to be resolute if not stubborn in his will was keenly aware of the consequences for his fellow man. Oyelowo's best work as King comes in emulating his incredible oratory skills rather than the behind-the-scenes moments, but he's compelling nonetheless and captures both the strong leadership and humanity of this legendary figure.
Still, the film operates best when it explores King as strategist and the dynamics on both sides of the board trying to plot their next move. The little character moments with King and, for example, his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) don't hold as much weight or attention. On the other hand, the way King interacts with others in the movement, like the father of a young protester killed by Selma police, show King's pastoral nature and bring deep humanity to the story. Those moments, when human consequences converge with the top view of change-making are when "Selma" shines most. The film just needs more of them.
DuVernay also seems like a director best suited with that kind of material. The actors carry the brunt of conveying all the dialogue-heavy gamesmanship scenes for her, but she does best with moments like in the beginning when Oprah's Annie Cooper goes to the courthouse and tries registering to vote. That scene is a mere microcosm of what's discussed in the film, but it stands out because we can relate to it and feel for the character.
The analytical side and the emotional side of "Selma" seem a bit at odds with each other through most of the film, but when they come together, they make for the kind of cinematic moments you want from a prestige picture like this. "Selma" is also pretty good when one side clearly overtakes the other, but admittedly it makes for a less cohesive finished product. Nevertheless, the film honors the pivotal piece of history it portrays and the key figure at its center.
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Action / Biography / Drama / History
Action / Biography / Drama / History
The unforgettable true story chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay's "Selma" tells the story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.
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April 24, 2015 at 10:57 AM