In 1965, civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo), having seen the way African Americans were denied their rights in Selma, Alabama, organised a march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, over 50 miles away. King was met with resistance from all sides, but his tenacity and perseverance changed the course of history.
Surprisingly, Selma is the first ever biopic of Martin Luther King Jr to receive a cinema release, and has gone through many incarnations in its long march to the screen. Lee Daniels was originally attached to direct, and when he left the project, lead actor David Oyelowo campaigned for Ava DuVernay to take over from him.
David Oyelowo excels in his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr, and gives the audience a view into the life of the family man, the preacher and the leader. This balance could be a difficult one to strike, but Oyelowo allows the many facets of King Jr’s personality to be seen on screen, and to blend together to form a rounded, relatable and believable character. Oyelowo is charming and passionate in the role, and commands the screen. Carmen Ejogo plays King Jr’s wife Coretta for the second time – the first being in the TV movie Boycott – and she portrays the character with strength and dignity.
Oprah Winfrey takes on a small but pivotal role as Annie Lee Cooper, Tom Wilkinson plays then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth plays Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. The rest of the cast includes Cuba Gooding Jr, Giovanni Ribisi, Common and Martin Sheen. All bring strength and command to the screen in their respective roles.
The screenplay, written by Paul Webb, focuses on the events that took place in Selma, and how they reverberated on a national scale. Segregation had been legally ended by 1965, but was still in practice in Selma, which was one of the many catalysts of the marches, along with African-Americans being denied their right to vote. Webb’s screenplay picks out the pivotal moments of the events of Selma – the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr, the arrests at the courthouse and the night march which led to the death of a protestor – and brings them together to create a moving, powerful and important story. Although Webb is the sole credited writer of Selma, it is common knowledge that the film had considerable input from director Ava DuVernay; the production was not allowed to use King’s original speeches, so DuVernay had to come up with material for her lead character to say.
As director, DuVernay tells the story of Selma with restraint and dignity; the film never becomes overly preachy or overly worthy, instead, the characters are allowed to communicate the struggle they went through to win the right to protest, and the personal struggle that King went through at the same time. DuVernay has coaxed a mesmerising performance from Oyelowo, and he ably carries the film. As well as this, no-one is ever truly demonised in the film, and Bradford Young’s cinematography shows the Southern US as the abundant and beautiful landscape that truly is. Perhaps the only detraction is choices to impose text on screen when characters are talking, which splits the audience’s attention.
In all, Selma is a beautifully shot, powerful and moving account of the events in Alabama of 1965. David Owelowo is engaging and strong as Martin Luther King Jr, and is backed up by a supporting cast at the top of their game. Ava DuVernay cements her place as a director to watch – despite a couple of missteps – and how this film was so ignored at the Oscars this year remains a mystery.