UK Release Date 6th February 2015
Director Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo
Runtime 128 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 8th Februray 2015

We’re not huge believers in the significance of the Academy Awards here at BS, we’ve watched too many movies miss out on what looked like obvious picks in our humble opinion (Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone losing out to Natalie Portman and Hoop Dreams not even getting nominated being our favourite travesties). So I’d greeted the rumblings around the lack of diversity in this year’s nominations with a sigh of resignation. Having now seen one of the performances overlooked, well, I’m inclined to be more than a little angry about it.

Ava DuVernay must be doubly peeved then, having seen her movie nominated for best motion picture but missing out herself, as well as seeing her star’s performance go un-nominated. Well, it’s the Academy's credibility that will take the hit here because there is no doubting the quality of both her work and David Oyelowo’s. DuVernay’s third big screen directorial effort and her second collaboration with Oyelowo, this is a superbly skilful piece of work and one that does it’s serious subject matter great credit.

Picking up Martin Luther King Jnr (Oyelowo)'s  life after what for many was the most memorable moment, Du Vernay concentrates on the battle to allow blacks to vote in the US. Having already secured the right to vote, it very quickly became clear that the white establishment wasn’t going to take such a trivial matter lying down and quickly created a bureaucratic minefield that meant that fewer than 2% of eligible blacks could actually vote. One of many horrific upshots of this was that elected police chiefs were not exactly representative of their community. As an impatient MLK desperately tried to persuade moderate white Lyndon B. Johnson to take legislative steps to ensure black’s rights to vote, the media played an increasing role in the issue.

Finally realising that LBJ wasn’t going to prioritise the issue, King relocated to Selma, Alabama and planned a march from there to the state capitol in Montgomery (a journey of some fifty miles) to highlight the plight of blacks at the polling booths. The first march went sour when the local racists (police and a variety of others) attacked the protesters and forced the march to be abandoned. A subsequent march gathered more media attention and more support from all races and the final march was successfully completed, leading to coverage that LBJ could no longer afford to ignore.

DuVernay’s handling of tone throughout this movie is absolutely pitch perfect. We get periods of calm, followed by horrific events, followed by scrabbling for the upper hand, all set out in measured beats, with no attempt to glorify either side’s situation. It’s a really effective method and when the first explosion hits a church, it will almost literally knock you out of your seat. It’s a jolt I didn’t see coming and it sets you on edge for the remaining movie (something the constant on screen FBI surveillance information compounds). The horrific and varying outpourings of racism are carefully presented, from the above act of murder to the more consistently pernicious denial of the right to vote. The latter shown in painful detail when Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote - having filled the form in correctly and correctly answered the question about how many circuit court judges there are (72), she is faced with the demand ‘Name them’. It’s blood boiling stuff but not in an exhibitionist way - DuVernay just lays it out there, you bring your own outrage.

And a similar level of care has been applied to fleshing out the man at the centre of all this, southern baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jnr. Oyelowo is a decent physical likeness of the man with a more than uncannily accurate voice and his performance is superbly measured and lifelike. Oyelowo’s King is no superhero, his faults are there for all to see, from his surging doubt in a prison cell to his (offscreen) infidelity to his loyal and supportive wife. It’s a performance that needs to convince us when King is both a quiet, tactical group leader as well as the eloquent inspirational orator we are used to seeing and it’s beautifully pitched by Oyelowo. We feel the pain of his doubt and the guilt of his infidelity as keenly as we feel the hairs stand on the back our necks when he stands on the podium.

The supporting cast is likewise superb. I need to mention Henry G Sanders before I go on any further here because in a movie filled with standout moments, his is the one that will stay with me. As Cager Lee, the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson - murdered by racist police during the first attempted march - his is a performance filled with humility. As King attempts to find words to comfort him in the morgue, the conversation staggers to how old Lee is. Briefly distracted from his grandson’s murder, his answer “I have 82 years…’ had me in tears instantly. And that doesn’t happen very often. It was such a perfect, natural, human moment in the centre of all this History and brilliantly captured the very real suffering at the heart of the movement.

As King’s wife, Coretta, Carmen Ejogo fills a pivotal role well. Banished to the periphery for the most part but ever present in King’s mind as he goes about his work, it’s a difficult role but one that Ejogo plays so well, it avoids any easy accusation of tokenism. Strong enough to confront her husband and to meet Malcolm X whilst King is in jail, against his wishes, Coretta is a formidable force in her own right. On the politician’s side, Tom Wilkinson is as reliable as we have come to expect him to be. His LBJ is very much the moderate white that King feared was, partly inadvertently, blocking his race’s progress. Desperate to keep his party on side but gradually running out of excuses on the back of his landslide victory, we really do get the sense of a man trapped in a moment in history, especially late on with his electrifying exchange with Tim Roth’s arrogant, repulsive, Gov. George Wallace.

In Selma, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have created an at times understated, at time bold testament to their subject that is fitting and, sadly, still very much relevant today. In some ways, by eschewing the showy, DuVernay has accurately mirrored the situation that contemporary America finds itself in. Shorn of all outright barriers to blacks, society is now more reliant on far more pernicious forms of racism. Hence police and wealthy white people appear to murder with impunity under the guise of protecting and large swathes of black America are criminalised through pervasive and futile drug laws. But that probably takes this a little too far. Selma is a careful and thorough examination of the effect of one man leading his oppressed race, both the effect on that man and also on history. This is a stirring, powerful, emotional movie that reminds us that many victories are fleeting and in complacency, evil will always find a home.

Selma Trailer

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