Synopsis: Selma is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma tells the story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.
Release Date: January 9, 2015 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Biography
There’s an inherent problem with making a historical drama. If a film is based on a real event, the audience already knows the outcome. Without the element of surprise, a movie has to rely on all of its other aspects to entertain and educate its audience. Luckily, Selma does a solid job with these other aspects.
Taking place in 1965, Selma tells the story of the struggle for equal voting rights for African Americans in Alabama. The film focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo of A Most Violent Year) as he leads the disenfranchised black people of Selma, Alabama, in protests and demonstrations. The protesters are peaceful, but the white locals are not, and blood is soon shed. Dr. King organizes a march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery in order to bring attention to their plight.
That’s pretty much all there is to Selma. Well, there’s obviously more, but it’s not a very plot-driven film. First-time screenwriter Paul Webb takes the facts and massages them a bit for dramatic effect, but the real draw to the film is the character of Dr. King and his dealings with his allies and enemies.
Director Ana DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) crafts what at first seems like a boring series of conversations into an extremely compelling and engrossing movie. The viewer gets completely wrapped up in the fluidity of the words and the subtleties of the performances until they finally realize that they’ve been watching people talk for ten minutes. What ends up on screen is a powerful and important mini-biopic about a short period of time in the life of a great man.
Of course, there has to be a bit of violence in a film about the civil rights movement of the sixties, but the brutality in Selma comes in little-isolated pockets. This fact only makes the horrifying moments that much more shocking – they occur when the viewer least expects them so that they are effective without being the slightest bit exploitative. Not only do these moments add a visceral component to an otherwise vicarious movie, but they also help to raise the stakes for Dr. King and his followers so that the audience becomes emotionally invested (if they weren’t already).
Additionally, and most importantly, these little bites of aggression pick up the pace when Selma starts slowing down. The pacing keeps the film balanced and, no doubt, adds a touch more realism to the story. As mentioned earlier, Selma is a powerful film.
America is at a point in history where many of its citizens feel that their basic human rights are being trampled upon in some way or another, so the message behind a movie like Selma hits home. The root causes of the protests of the sixties and those of today are completely different, but the lessons learned can be the same. Let’s just hope a few of today’s activists see Selma for what it is and take a page or two out of Dr. King’s book of non-violent resistance.
It’s a huge risk for any actor to portray a historical icon who is as loved and respected as Dr. Martin Luther King. Apparently, David Oyelowo understands this because he seems to have done a lot of preparation for his portrayal of Dr. King in Selma. Oyelowo nails every aspect of Dr. King’s speeches, from the emotional aspects of the passion and articulation to the mechanical elements of the rhythm and cadence.
As effective as Oyelowo is at playing the public figurehead of Dr. King, he is equally adept at portraying the private man. Oyelowo successfully captures the spirit of the man himself in his interactions with his wife, supporters, and detractors alike, humanizing the bigger-than-life figure. Of course, he is surrounded by a world-class cast that includes stars such as Cuba Gooding, Jr., Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Martin Sheen, Tom Wilkinson, and Oprah Winfrey, but the supporting cast is just that: support. The focal point of the film is Dr. King, and Oyelowo’s performance of the man himself is impressive.
There’s an interesting look to Selma. Cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) uses a flat, bland color palette which emphasizes the sixties-in-the-South tone of the film, but there are also some very intriguing photographic decisions behind the film. In many scenes, Young will use a very shallow depth of field and a highly selective focal plane, so that most of the background is blurry. This basically demands that the audience look at exactly what the film wants them to look at, even something as seemingly insignificant as the back of a character’s head because it’s the only thing in the shot that’s focused.
The technique is taken a step further in places when the framing is extremely off-center, putting the subject in a lower corner of the image, while everything else is still unrecognizable. It’s a weird, artsy way to approach a film like Selma, but it really works well. It seems as if, through Young, Ana DuVernay is saying, “Look here, nothing else matters.” It’s a little funny, almost as if Selma is forcing the audience to look at something that they otherwise wouldn’t care about. It’s an interesting concept, indeed.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Ava DuVernay
- Screenwriter(s): Paul Webb
- Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr.), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Fred Gray), Tim Roth (George Wallace), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee C. White), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Martin Sheen (Frank Minis Johnson), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper)
- Editor(s): Spencer Averick
- Cinematographer: Bradford Young
- Country Of Origin: USA