It is not easy to film a historic moment that some viewers will remember, such as a critical juncture wherein the Civil Rights Movement focused on a single issue: electoral rights. Nonetheless, director Ava DuVernay delivers with Selma, an extraordinary film filled with solid performances and an intense atmosphere that is truly a cinematic experience.
The story of Selma is layered in history, politics, social awareness and a humanized biography. DuVernay tracks several people from different walks of life with real high stakes. As much as the film focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, his leadership style and his family, the genius of DuVernay is that she humanizes the film by focusing also on everyday people in the south. The film goes beyond a biopic work and becomes an engrossing and relatable story about what it was like to live in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960s. It should be noted that DuVernay made history herself, by being the first African-American female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination — a well-earned nod.
Selma starts quietly with what seems to be a very positive moment for Dr. King, played marvelously by David Oyelowo. He is in Norway to accept a Nobel Peace Prize. He is charismatic, charming and even a bit hesitant about the life he has chosen. He jokes with his wife, Coretta Scott King (an equally amazing Carmen Ejogo), about being a preacher in a small college town. Through this and other even more intimate moments, DuVernay humanizes Dr. King. He is a leader with doubts, concerns, fear and in constant search of how to do what is both right for the struggle and right for the people he has mobilized.
That the film did not have access to the original speeches because of budget constraints does not in any way hinder the film’s outcome. Oyelowo plays King with a strength that shines through the screen guaranteed to stir an emotional response from the audience. The sequences with King delivering speeches show a passionate leader, who is speaking as much to himself as he is directing his words to a crowd. Oyelowo makes it obvious that there is self-doubt in this great leader. The fact that we are hearing these words for the first time actually helps the film, engaging the audience in the film itself instead of standing out as a reenactment of a moment in time that might be very familiar to some.
Among a remarkable ensemble cast, one of the highlights of this film is a standout performance by Ejoga as Coretta Scott King. As a supporting actress, Ejoga made the most of this film, and her representation of Coretta feels both authentic and fresh. I would not be surprised if she is recognized later on with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the Academy. Another solid performance came from none other than Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper, a woman willing the courage it would take for an African-American citizen to register to vote in Selma prior to the Civil Rights Act. Her tone and gestures are filled with an apprehensive strength, and in the quiet sighs and defiant gazes, she shows that the Civil Rights Movement went well beyond the marches, sit-ins and brilliant speeches. The everyday struggle was part of the mounting anger that later won the hearts and minds of supporters from across the country. Terms like second-rate citizen are often bandied about when talking about racial disparities in America, but in the performances of Winfrey, not to mention Henry J. Sanders as Cager Lee, the audience gets to witness what the term second-class citizenship actually means.
The film comes at an incredibly timely year, as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The big issues of racial disparity, abuse of authority and the struggle of racial minorities to exercise the right to govern their own lives are still very much top of mind with the unresolved issues of Ferguson and the series of protests still being held under the umbrella hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, Selma is a well-timed film and a must-watch, even for the apolitical public, as the drama is compellingly constructed by DuVernay.
Selma is rated PG-13 (expect violence and some cursing), runs 127 minutes. It opens wide in the United States on Friday, Jan. 9. Get showtimes and tickets here. Paramount invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
Update: Selma is returning to theaters for an encore round of screenings on March 20 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of this important moment in history. For local showtimes, visit this link.