Selma opens with two very powerful scenes. First, we’re met with a group of young girls milling about at church. As they make their way into mass, we catch a snippet of their conversation. The girls are discussing hairstyles while giggling and walking. Then, just as they begin to talk about the intricacies of Coretta Scott King’s hair, they’re blown to bits. With that intensely dismaying moment, Ava DuVernay (Director) shoves us into the reality of life in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Once that punch to the chest sinks in, we’re left to find respite in a contrastingly, solemn and devastating moment.
We meet Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) as she’s filling out paperwork. She’s registering to vote and she looks tense and apprehensive. Annie fills out all her forms by the time she’s called to speak to the county registrar. As she approaches the counter the registrar seems angry. Despite Annie having all her documentation in order and demonstrating that she’s quite knowledgeable with the process, the guy behind the counter proceeds to talk down to, degrade, quiz and humiliate her. As expected, Annie is denied her voter registration. She’s clearly been through this process before and she’s tired. All she wants is to be heard, but she won’t be today.
This introduction to Selma was compelling and, to be completely honest with you, I was full on crying by the time Annie was shut down at the registrar’s office. Also, I was familiar with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; I knew the little girls were to perish there. I knew all of that and yet, during the opening credits, when the fate of these girls was revealed, I was shocked. Ava DuVernay did not ease her audience into the time of the civil rights movement, no sir. What she did was slap us across the face with a hefty dose of realness.
At the end of those scenes, I began to wonder how such a powerful preface could be topped. Just before our introduction to David Oyelowo as Dr. King, I started to worry that I might have already seen the best Selma had to offer. I was afraid I might be in for another anticlimactic biopic when what I really wanted was a glimpse into the life of a man whose work I’ve admired my whole life. What I got was a healthy dose of storytelling that does Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy justice. At the end of the film, when the credits started to roll, I knew I’d gotten what I came for.
Image Source: Teaser Trailer
Selma is the story of MLK’s historic fight for federal legislation supporting the voting rights of black Americans. Just as Annie had been denied her right to vote, so too were many others. African Americans had been granted the right to vote for some time, yet their voting rights were being illegally suppressed by local government officials. During the three-month period that this movie covers, Dr. King is on a journey to convince president Lyndon Johnson to enact federal legislation ensuring that black Americans were no longer hindered by local governments with respect to their right to vote.
David Oyelowo brings Dr. King back to life through a stoic and intense performance. Initially, I was skeptical. I suppose I didn’t think he looked enough like MLK for my liking, but that opinion soon changed. Oyelowo quickly settles into the violent and angry environment Ava DuVernay creates through a combination of vicious imagery and powerful storytelling. Oyelowo delivers a dynamic performance that captures King’s human nature. Dr. King is flawed just like the rest of us and Oyelowo conveys this with a subtlety that respects his legacy while adding another dimension to his story. In Selma, we see MLK as passionate, confused, vulnerable, afraid and overwhelmed. We get some insight into what it must have been like to lead a movement that changed lives as it endured death, cruelty and oppression. We feel the stress too as it’s all channeled through David Oyelowo.
Sometimes, an entire cast of actors comes through to push a movie from good to great and the cast of Selma does just that. For crissake, Oprah made me cry, y’all and she wasn’t the only one. Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton and Tim Roth as Governor George are prime examples of the excellent acting in this film. Their contrasting portrayals help drive the story home. Like I said, this movie is powerful. Selma is more than a lesson in American history–it’s an experience.
The undeniably sincere and effective performances in this film make it memorable. They even eclipse the fact that Martin Luther King’s speeches are never quoted directly. That’s right, every scene where Oyewolo speaks adamantly as Dr. King about justice, equality, strife and protest, he’s paraphrasing. It turns out The MLK estate had already licensed the film rights to other studios for a biopic that Steven Spielberg will be producing. It is unfortunate that King’s actual words were not used in, Selma but lucky for us, the message conveys nonetheless.
Image Source: The Artery
Ava DuVernay gracefully tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s spirit while fearlessly delving into the crux of the civil rights movement. She shines a light onto the civil rights era and renews a long lost sense of urgency. DuVernay is well aware these events took place not too long ago and she is holding them up for all to see. She doesn’t bother softening the blow, but instead relishes in reviving the shock that shook America into action 52 years ago. These wounds, which she illustrates so well, are fresh. The struggle continues even today and it’s sobering to see how far we have come as a nation when it’s measured against how far we have yet to go. Selma is tough to watch but necessary to see and DuVarnay tells the story with heart. She uses Dr. King’s narrative, and that of the ever-present FBI, to convey not just the story, but also the anguish of an era.
With that said, DuVernay takes some interesting creative liberties with the depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson and she does not let the man go down in cinematic history unscathed. It’s clear she’s dramatized some of the interactions between MLK and the former president, and while it works for storytelling, it muddles history. What I did enjoy was how she visually incorporated the FBI’s involvement in King’s journey. She provides a more complete picture of King’s intimate relationship with the federal government and it cuts.
Despite the stylistic choices that might come off as historical inaccuracies, the story behind Selma is riveting. Dr. King is depicted not as a legend, but as a man on a deliberate and sincere mission to do what is right and stand for equality. His flaws are exposed and his vulnerabilities magnified so that we might get an idea of what it takes to change the world.
If you’re looking to learn some stuff, question other stuff and find yourself lost in an emotional story of triumph, you should watch Selma. If you liked Lincoln, you’ll like this film too. It’s a turbulent experience, full of history, drama and empowerment and while it’s hard to watch at times, the heart of this movie won’t let you look away.
Selma (2014) – B
B = Watch it in a theater, stream it on T.V. or add it to your Netflix queue; chances are, you won’t curse me for recommending when the credits roll.
Image Source: WatchPlayRead