Selma movie review

Featuring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay
Movie website:
Australian release date: Feb 12

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A stirring reconstruction of a pivotal event of the 60s black civil rights movement, with an inspirational performance by David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted voting rights to black Americans, in effect formalising equal rights nation-wide, but in Alabama in 1965 little had changed. Segregation was still in force, whites jealously – and often violently – guarded their positions of privilege with the assistance of the all-white cops, terrorists bombed black churches, and in official capacities authorities resorted to dirty tricks to subvert the legislation.

In an early scene of Selma, a clerk at a voting registration office subjects a determined and formidably informed middle-aged black woman (Oprah Winfrey) to the indignity of having to complete a quiz on obscure details of government, refusing her registration papers when she cannot answer.

The film focuses on a 3 month period that proved crucial in countering the forces condemning blacks in Alabama to continued oppression. Dr Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists led the fight, which culminated in a dangerous and epic march from Selma to Montgomery. Saturation press coverage of the march and some horrendous police brutality in events preceding it set off a tidal change in popular opinion that forced President Johnson to enact legislation to force Alabama and its renegade redneck leaders like Governor George Wallace into step with the rest of the country on black voting rights.

Naturally, the march is the dramatic climax to the film, but the primary focus is the behind-the-scene machinations leading up to it, and the tensions dividing sectors of the black activist leadership.

King is presented as the great, inspirational leader and orator he was, but not mythologised as a saintly visionary with loyal disciples in tow. He is presented in very human terms, as a man unflinching in his faith, yet prone to dark nights of the soul, torn between his mission and family, struggling and in some cases failing to convince his detractors to persevere with non-violent protest rather than adopting the more forceful tactics advocated by radicals like Malcolm X.

The political maneuvering between King and Lyndon B Johnson during their meetings in the White House is riveting, the glimpse into the political mind of the President deeply unsettling and disturbing. However, it is the nature of the poisonous game of politics that is under fire here, not so much Johnson himself. He is shown as a political animal whose main game is juggling priorities (although he doesn’t hesitate to play foul where necessary, conniving with J. Edgar Hoover to keep tabs on King and mess with his domestic life).

King’s cause is one of many on the President’s plate, and assisting it beset with political dangers. Humanity is barely in the picture for Johnson, despite the indignities and injustice King confronts him with.

This is not a Martin Luther King biopic as such. The background to the pivotal Selma-Montgomery march and its outcome is director Ava DuVernay’s main concern. However, the King character is so magnetic, so compelling, he steals the show regardless. David Oyelowo not only looks like King – his renditions of some of his lesser-known speeches are uncanny, capturing the cadences and tones perfectly, and damn near as inspirational in effect as the originals! It’s hair-raising stuff.

Indeed, all the performances are superb, the likes of Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Wallace (Tim Roth) ringing brilliantly true in their portrayals.

As reconstructions of pivotal historical events go, Selma is about as good as it gets. That is not to say it works perfectly as a drama – this is an inevitability of the genre. You would like more on King’s family life, for example, but there just isn’t room. Most importantly, you leave wiser for the experience and emotionally stirred, mostly by the movie, partly by the tragedy that was to cut King short, and partly by the awareness that half a century on the promise of the 60s seems more illusory than ever.

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