Last year’s “Pride” brilliantly demonstrated how far gay rights have come in the UK in 30 years. Selma does an equally superb job in showing how far racial equality has come in the US in 50 years.
The year is 1964 and racial tension is rife in the Southern states, with attacks and murders of black citizens going unpunished by the combination of a white-majority policing and legal system. Enter Martin Luthor King (English actor David Oyelowo) at the point of receiving his Nobel Peace prize. King insists at a Presidential level (with Tom Wilkinson playing Lyndon Johnson) that black citizens be allowed unfettered rights to vote in elections, with the aim of securing a more just and balanced society. Looking for a suitable location to mount a media-led stand, in an age before social networking and ‘Arab-Springs’, King centres his attention on the Alabama town of Selma, mounting a series of non-violent (at least on their side) protests and marches. The local redneck police chief, Wilson Baker (David Dwyer), and the state governor, George Wallis (Tim Roth), are not going to stand for this and the tinder-box reaches ignition point during a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.
Nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture (but only that in the major awards, so winning chances are probably near-zero), Selma is primarily an excellent example of an ensemble cast that works particularly well together. There are a wealth of outstanding performances: Tom Wilkinson’s Lyndon Johnson comes across as a surprisingly sympathetic character (jerking me out of my natural Vietnam-coloured perception of the politician);
Oprah Winfrey (also a co-producer) provides a text-book example of acting without acting, her expressions doing all of the work;
Dylan Baker (so fantastic in “The Good Wife”) is chillingly sinister as J. Edgar Hoover; English-born Carmen Ejogo plays (extremely well) a similar role to Sienna Miller’s in “American Sniper” as the wife alienated by her husband’s calling; and Giovanni Ribisi (“Saving Private Ryan”, “Friends”), Cuba Gooding Jnr and (a bizarrely uncredited) Martin Sheen turn up in great cameo performances.
But towering over all of this great acting is Oyelowo’s performance which is simply outstanding: every death and injury is etched on his face. This is a Martin Luthor King that you can really believe in. I would have personally bounced Bradley Cooper in the nomination list for him, and it is astonishing (given his English background) that he was also overlooked at the BAFTAs. He must be feeling pretty aggrieved right now. Mr Oyelowo – if you are reading this – this critic thanks you for an outstanding performance.
As a relative newcomer to direction, at least for a movie of this scale, Ava Duvernay does a great job with some of the action scenes (with particularly the shocking opening to the film showing enormous style). Paul Webb (apparently with this as a screenwriting debut – – how on earth did he get THIS job?) does a creditable job, with lots of memorable sound-bites that stick in the mind. Where the film ran into soft mud for me however was in the personal scenes between the married couple: they don’t really provide enough insight into the stresses of King’s serial adultery, and the plotting becomes slow and dull…. I personally lost interest in most of these scenes and was desperate for the film to get back to the ‘action’ in Selma.
Also of note is the end title song – “Glory” by John Legend and Common (who also stars in the film) – which is also nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe.
Both gay rights and racial equality undoubtedly still have much further to go, but this does make you proud that as US and UK societies we have come so far within my own lifetime. A recommended watch, particularly for those with an interest in sociology and/or American history.
Fad Rating: FFFF.