Film Review: "SELMA" Seeks Insight
Taking audiences on a journey through a civil detente is a hard thing to achieve. Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, accomplishes the Hollywood glamour that audiences want in historical dramas. Starting with the murder of children at a church and a woman being rejected for her registration to vote, we jump to Martin Luther King Jr's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. MLK notes how he would prefer a quieter life, perhaps running a small church.
DuVernay focuses on Selma, Alabama, as a hot-spot for the 1960s civil rights movement. While some of it is clearly dramatised for effect, the film does give a quality overview of the human rights movement which ended segregation, achieved legal equality and sought voting rights.
Curiously, given that Winfrey is a producer and has a minor acting role, the film also highlights MLK's indiscretions. I had no idea that MLK was a user of people - emotionally, sexually and financially - and it takes distinct bravery as a filmmaker to showcase this. Historical figures like Dr. King are often shown in the greatest light possible in biopics; and call it what you will, but nobody is perfect. DuVernay gives us an insight into the complications in the King household and Martin Luther's relentless pursuit for racial equality. Don't get me wrong, King is still shown in exceptionally positive light - he did win a bevy of social justice awards - but it was nice to see a critical view of him, at times.
British actor David Oyelowo (who also starred alongside Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year last year) fulfilled a weirdly commanding and self-righteous position as MLK - being able to walk into every room and leave his misgivings behind. Meanwhile, his wife Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) also seemed dutiful in the face of pressure.
Contrasting MLK in the film were President Lyndon Johnson, the Governor of Alabama and the Selma Police - all of whom faired quite badly. I walked into the cinema not knowing much about the film, so when I first saw LBJ I actually thought it was Richard Nixon. His demeanour was very domineering, angry and retrograde. For those familiar with the story, LBJ does come around, but as the film shows, it was an exceptionally difficult journey. Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) was definitely a showstopper as Alabama Governor George Wallace, as he was able to command our attention and make us loathe him at the same time. Additionally, The Alabama locals were consistently depicted as regressive, conservative and racist. I have never been convinced that every bystander of injustice is terrible, but that is how they were portrayed in this film.
These sort of films often leave me tired, but Selma actually inspired me. It is not a perfect film; it left me wondering a lot of questions about King, his associates and Coretta Scott. DuVernay and Winfrey succeed in a more realistic portrayal and understanding of King's struggle.