Having been in limbo for a good number of years, the script for ‘Selma’ finally got lift off a few years ago when they finally managed to nail a director down to helm the project. Ava DuVernay finally was tied down in the role after rumours of Lee Daniels and Steven Spielberg’s varying involvement with the project, to the extent that he has the license to Martin Luther King’s speeches, making DuVernay’s task of bringing to the big screen the tale of some of the great man’s most important achievements all the harder.
Happily she not just manages it, but she excels. Thanks to a mixture of top notch direction, brilliant writing by Paul Webb and a virtuoso performance by David Oyelowo, we are captivated by every speech and every movement of Oyelowo’s King, all without the use of any of his most famous words. ‘Selma’ is a deeply affecting movie, and a lot of this is down to the way DuVernay puts it together, blending King’s more intimate interactions with his wife, as played fantastically by Carmen Ejogo, with his public persona, which is one of near total control and influence, to give us two sides to the coin, as well as showing us that a movement like this does not succeed without some astute political machinations that King and his confidantes are more than a match for. Compliments must also be given to Tom Wilkinson for his brilliant performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson and a delightfully slimy turn from Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, both of whom bring plenty to the table in terms of shaping the narrative, and illustrating the many complexities of a situation that seemed to have no resolution.
Ultimately ‘Selma’ is not a standard biopic in that it focuses particularly on a certain set of events and how King manages to capture the hearts of a nation that was entirely divided on the issue at hand: that of racial equality. DuVernay marshals Webb’s writing in such a way that even the smallest moments and the most incremental conversations are captivating, every word having a layered meaning and evoking a setting of untold pressure and no small amount of risk as the film sets out to explore the landscape in the fight for equal rights, both emotionally and politically. It handles the subject matter respectfully and with a great deal of regard, but is never overawed and ensures that it tells the story in more than just a simple sense, showing King to be as human as any of the rest in the movement, driven by resilience and the desire to do best for those that follow him, though always prone to moments of doubt. A large part of this is down to Oyelowo, whose lack of recognition at the Oscars is arguably the biggest oversight of the year, and his thorough encapsulation of King is a joy to behold. Sure, ‘Selma’ may not tell us the whole story and perhaps takes some liberties that people would not want it to take to enhance the drama, but it’s a very fine telling of an important tale that has been managed despite an obstacle that could so easily have been unsurpassable, but ultimately wasn’t.
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