Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that we continue to climb towards today; Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, is a reminder of how far we’ve come and how high the mountain really is. This film takes place in 1965, where King boldly leads a campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent racism. David Oyelowo takes on the role of King, and is surrounded by a tremendous cast, including Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, and Tim Roth.
DuVernay directs this film as more of a dramatic piece rather than with a bio-pic template, making for a more engaging experience. We’re there with King’s campaign, and with the marchers trekking from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The intimacy is what elevates the movie. The film is well-written, solidly-acted, and there are many hard-hitting scenes of violence that bang at your front door, along with captivating moments that inspire.
Throughout all the blood spilled by the hands attached to minds trapped in boxes, King and his supporters prevail through the power of perseverance. Those moments in the film where the marchers are linked together, where King is inspiring his fellow civil rights activists through speech or where King and President Lyndon B. Johnson exchange words are the moments of progress we strive for. Those collection of moments are worth the fight, as each is a step towards a better life. DuVernay displays these moments beautifully on film, capturing some of the agony and pain in intimate ways, such as slowing down the frame or giving you a point-of-view shot to feel the scene in your bones. Sure, there are historical inaccuracies to pick at, but the overall message from King and the display of courage against chaos makes up for it.
Oyelowo capitalizes on his resemblance to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., giving a multi-dimensional performance that is spellbinding. When Oyelowo speaks, it makes you want to do something, to be somebody. Oyelowo is inspirational in the role, becoming the non-violent civil rights activist, flaws and all. He’s courageous, he’s doubtful, he’s angry, and everything in between; it’s a true portrayal of a real-life hero. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance indeed, even if it didn’t get the recognition it deserved.
Tom Wilkinson does a fantastic job as President Johnson, a man coming to the realization of what needs to be done. Tim Roth also turns in a solid performance as Governor George Wallace, the villainous politician that won’t budge. Overall, the cast comes together to perform without any weak link.
Although Selma portrays events that happened in 1965, the film still feels contemporary and very much relative. It also shows us a taste of the complexity of politics, and how King used the media as a mirror to show the inequalities that we should fight. We’ve come a long way, as this film reminds us, but we still need to continue to march towards the dream. It’s a by-the-numbers film, more or less, that greatly succeeds in inspiring us to stand up for what’s right.