Selma Brings MLK to Life

Movie Review


It's both a compliment and a bit of a knock to say that Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., (out Friday at theaters everywhere) feels extremely important.

Through arresting oratory, striking visual sequences which depict the brutality of the Civil Rights Movement, and a powerful ensemble cast chock-full of sensitive, articulate activists, the film is certainly a success. It's also a pleasure to see this coming from director Ava DuVernay, who has been a force for a few years in the black filmmaking community but until now hasn't broken into the mainstream. Selma will change that, and American moviegoers are the beneficiaries.  

The flipside of Selma's beautiful presentation is that you never shed the sense that you're watching an awards-season flick. Each scene, in fact, feels like it has been edited for an Oscar highlight reel: the speeches, the monologues, the dramatic close-ups, the swelling score, the slo-mo!

I gather what people mean when they disparagingly use the term "Oscar bait" is that an emotional (embarrassing, triumphant) moment in America's history has been recreated expressly to tug at our heartstrings and force our voting hand. But it's much more the texture of this film than its content which contributes to the idea that the genre to which it belongs is not "historical drama" but "Academy Award drama."   

Be apprised though, that the film is deserving of Oscar consideration. David Oyelowo's recreation and interpretation of MLK is masterful and deeply layered. By the film's rousing finale, he has so completely inhabited the man that you're unsure if audio of MLK's historic speeches have been dubbed over.  DuVernay too, ought to get a nod in a crowded director field.  

To its credit, the film concentrates on a very specific (and cinematically manageable) slice of the Civil Rights movement, after MLK has won the Nobel Peace Prize and delivered his "I Have a Dream Speech" in Washington. Here, the quest is voting rights in Alabama, and a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to demonstrate on black voters' behalf, and to intentionally put themselves in harm's way to stir up national press and thereby pressure President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, wearing enormous shoulder pads), who'd much rather focus on his War on Poverty. 

You'll encounter many of the scenes you've seen before in Civil Rights-era films: confrontations with twangy, backwoods law enforcement; marching; singing; tragic death. But you'll also see a different side of the movement: its strategy, its infighting, its anxieties.  

(This one sneaks into my top 20 of 2014, behind Land Ho! and The Lego Movie, and just ahead of Locke, Calvary and Into the Woods). 

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