“Fear not. We’ve come too far to turn back now.”
Everyone is afraid of change to a certain degree. Unwilling to switch up your standard order at a restaurant, reluctant to leave your childhood home, resistant to accepting people of different racial backgrounds. Whether big or small, change always seems to be forced. Selma, disappointingly the first major film to tackle the fearless pursuit of equality by Dr. Martin Lutheran King Jr., shows us what went into the major shift in the cultural train of thought. We see the perils and detailed plan following the Civil Rights Movement to get African-Americans the right to vote. Sounds pretty routine, but this film is far from that. Selma is leaps and bounds above every biopic, and nearly every other film released this year, because of its tragic sense of timeliness despite the roughly half a century separation. Selma is a bastion of the values humanity should hold and a reminder of how far we have yet to go until face value loses its significance.
Following his speech after receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) sets out to correct further injustices, chiefly the black communities restriction from voting. It’s a vicious cycle of perpetuated racism. Sure, racial segregation has technically ended, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over. If they can’t vote, they can’t get African-Americans on juries, they can’t remove the blind lawmakers turning their cheek to the criminal acts being committed against their community. They can’t be free. This depiction of the world has yet to abide by MLK’s famous words, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
Selma starts with a bang, literally, and never looks back. Four black girls are murdered at their church by an explosive device, telling us that their acceptance is far from universally held. MLK speaks with President LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), who never seems to take him seriously, treating America’s racial divide as miniscule compared to the confounding and worthless troubles spurred by the Vietnam War. “Selma it is,” King says, igniting the march that will hopefully spark future amendments. Selma is a history lesson without ever trying to be one. Important cultural figures come and go, King’s plan is extremely detailed, and even interesting title cards showing the FBI’s log of MLK’s activity unfoil across the screen. There’s no pointless exposition or forced emphasis on side characters or events. Its naturalism puts you at ground zero. You feel in it.
There’s superb costuming, a constantly engaging background score, and far too many crucial roles to make note of them all. However, as MLK, David Oyelowo gives what in my opinion is the best leading male performance of the year. Not once do you think you’re watching the talented British actor try to play the Georgia boy MLK. Oyelowo gained weight to play the stocky humanitarian, and on an emotional level delivers the most nuanced performance of all the big biopic roles from this year (here’s looking at you, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game). His bulging eyes leap from his skull as he preaches from the pulpit and his slow, reassuring voice calms the worried hearts of those he loves, specifically his wife Coretta (with a fantastically quiet portrayal by Carmen Ejogo). We’ve all seen footage of MLK in front of the masses spearheading the black cause. But rarely, if ever, do you catch a glimpse of such a strong person at their weakest. A nervous man reciting his speeches, praying to God, calling a friend to be sung a hymn. MLK was like all of the us, except he was the best of us. Fragility didn’t escape him, but when he was front and center, in the crowd when it mattered, he led. Oyelowo brings an undercurrent of overwhelming sadness masked by determined hopefulness. It’s remarkable acting.
Also necessary to be praised is director Ava DuVernay. She took Paul Webb’s Oscar worthy script and brought to life a true story that never falls into tedium. You won’t see the half asleep, head nodding back and forth kid in the crowd like during a boring lecture. And that’s because DuVernay knows how to tell the story. She’s a black woman, and even with her success at small scale filmmaking (go watch the haunting I Will Follow), this is her first big movie. Boy is that going to change. Her camera placement and precision with the length of each scene is remarkable. Just notice the cutaways during MLK’s many speeches to profile shots. They’re glimpses of how you might see the man had you been in the audience. The speeches don’t cry out for Oscar attention like the prolonged, ostentatious monologues of a film like The Wolf of Wall Street. Whether or not she receives nominations doesn’t matter. I’ve seen nearly every major awards player as of writing this, and Selma certainly ranks towards the top in terms of the script and directing. It’s impeccable.
With recent current events, Selma could not be more topical. I’ve always found it interesting to look at a person and wonder had they been around during the film’s setting how they would have acted. Would they have been part of the minority who rightly sought equality for all, or a part of the majority, the endorsers of hate and discrimination. Coming from the Midwest, a corn belt population indoctrinated with the false beliefs that guns supply safety and that you reap what you sow, it’s safe to assume many would propagate the racist behavior. It baffles me how some people I know, genuinely good, loving, hard-working individuals, can still justify the marginalization of entire groups of our multi-colored pool of life. I’ve heard a family friend defend the senseless murder of Eric Garner because he committed a crime. And another say, “The n***** got what was coming for him.” If being killed for a petty crime is deserved, then every person crossing the speed limit or illegally downloading content from the internet deserves to be killed as well (I’m guilty as charged on both fronts). DuVernay’s film provides a voice for the voiceless that is sorely lacking in the American social landscape. It’s both poignant and brutally eye-opening. Selma is the most important movie to come from 2014.
“One struggle ends just to go right from the next to the next.”
Rating: 5 out of 5