David Oyelowo is outstanding as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's film about three pivotal months in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s
Ava DuVernay’s fine and stately film about the historic Selma marches of 1965 opens with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. being conferred with the Nobel Prize for Peace in December 1964.
Amid the pomp and ceremony of a state room in Oslo, it appears that the centuries’ long struggle for equal rights for black Americans has reached some kind of tipping point and that King’s life’s work is about to be realised.
Any visions of the promised land are brutally shattered by a quick cut to the explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama the year before. Four young black girls died after a bomb was planted by anti-Civil Rights activists.
It the first of many times in Selma that DuVernay, an African American director whose family hails from Alabama itself, brings real and terrible events into tense and urgent life.
Selma is not a biopic of Dr Martin Luther King - a mammoth undertaking perhaps yet to come - but instead focuses on the key months of the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965, when the young Civil Right leader marshalled peaceful resistance and agitated for the right for all blacks to vote and, crucially, revealed to the rest of America the brutal injustices of the southern states.
It is a very engaging and well-made evocation of a pivotal time in the centuries-old and on-going struggle for equality in the US. Standing at the centre of it all is a commanding and more than Oscar-worthy performance from Nigerian British actor David Olyelowo. Like DuVernay, bringing this story to the big screen was a spiritual mission for him and he plays Dr King with a steely gravitas but also an all too human frailty.
David Oyelowo talks to TEN about Selma
It's a big story to tell and DuVernay uses the clever framing device of the FBI field reports on King’s every movement. Hammered out in telex print at the bottom of the screen, they give Selma an immediacy and sense of blunt reality.
We see King in all manner of situations, not just as the great orator and charismatic leader but also the conflicted family man. At one point, he wakes late at night to call gospel singer Mahalia Jackson so she can sing to him in one of his many moments of crisis. But DuVernay skirts around King’s marital infidelities, merely letting wife Coretta, played with grace and patience by Carmen Ejogo, confront him about his womanising in one terse business-like scene.
We follow King from the dust roads of Alabama to the church halls, and to high office. His meetings and showdowns with The President, the gruff and hugely popular Texan Lydon B Johnson (a great Tom Wilkinson) are measured and well executed. LBJ was hugely supportive of Civil Rights and our loathing is reserved for Tim Roth as twitchy Governor George Wallace.
As for the three Selma to Montgomery marches, the camera is unflinching. In one chilling moment, we see a protester beaten to the ground on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by a state trooper on horseback wielding a whip. However, Selma does look too clean and pretty - every scene seems imbued with a soft buttery light that looks too sanitised for the poverty of Alabama.
But David Oyelowo is magnetic in his quiet, still performance and for those unfamiliar with these events, DuVernay's film is quite an education - it’s also one historical drama with a very contemporary and real message.