It’s award season, which means all the best movies striving for awards were hitting theaters in December, to qualify for the 2014 awards. Selma was no different, hitting select theaters on Christmas, but finally coming to wide release now. Is this a contender for some big awards?
The gist. David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr. and the movie focuses on a specific moment in his life, as opposed to a birth-to-death biography. This movie’s focal point is a movement in the city of Selma, Alabama, to allow their black citizens to vote. When the movie opens, he’s already delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and is about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As a powerful man in the Civil Rights movement, he travels to the city of Selma where he helps to organize the people there and expose this issue to a national audience. Carmen Ejogo stars as his wife Coretta, while Tom Wilkinson stars as the President, Lyndon B. Johnson. In supporting roles, we see Oprah Winfrey, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Stephan James, and Wendell Pierce.
David Oyelowo (who’s gone under the radar in films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Interstellar, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Lincoln) absolutely carries the show here. He is charismatic and inspiring in moments that he needs to be, but we also see sweeter and quieter moments where you can imagine Martin Luther King Jr. as a young man, just trying to enjoy life and care for his family. His performance here will undoubtedly get him at least some nominations for Best Actor, though I still think Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything will get the win.
In terms of the film itself, it’s absolutely captivating. This is a moment that I never read about and found myself completely ignorant of, which made the movie far more interesting. It’s a piece of history that’s been left out of textbooks but is incredibly important. The movie treats this story with crucial importance and delivers perfectly. The final moments in the film overlay some real photos from the event and it’s very powerful.
This is director Ava DuVernay’s first big Hollywood feature, after serving as a publicist for many years, but she’s done an incredible job here.
What doesn’t work?
Like with other “true story” films, if the real situation didn’t really make sense or play out ideally, the film likely suffers from the same feeling. There’s a huge moment in Selma that left me stumped. You can tell the writer knew this as well, as characters question it and address it many times. If the movie was fictionalized, that moment would have been very different.
And something I didn’t mind so much, but there seems to be a bit of controversy about, is the role of Lyndon B. Johnson, who seems almost like a villain in the movie and some historians are very upset because he seemed to make much more progress and was much more helpful in the reality of the Civil Rights movement. I didn’t mind, but historical purists might find this in-congruent with what history tells us of this time.
Selma is a powerful movie around a very specific moment in time, with great performances and stellar work from relative newcomer director Ava DuVernay. It can be tough to watch but the end result makes this movie something we should all be watching, especially in light of recent current events involving race and race relations. If you’re going to see this for one reason only though, it should be for David Oyelowo’s incredible performance as Martin Luther King Jr., a performance that’s sure to put him on the Hollywood radar.