Talking Movies

February 5, 2015

Selma

Selma brings to vivid life the struggle for civil rights in 1965 Alabama with a fiery performance from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.

SELMA

Four schoolgirls are murdered in a church bombing in Selma. Any prospect for justice is defeated by the refusal of Registrar (Clay Chappell) to allow people like Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote (on ever shifting sands of spurious tests), thereby ensuring all-white juries. And so MLK (Oyelowo) rolls into town to whip up a mass demonstration to pressure LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to put aside the Great Society and pass a Voting Rights Act instead. Little does he know that as well as facing the obvious threat of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), his henchman Col. Al Lingo (Stephen Root), and the vicious Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stanley Houston), he will face the shadowy threat of J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) attempting to turn King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) against him. Can MLK stay the course?

Oyelowo oozes charisma as he delivers three set-piece speeches during this film. But he also shows us a vulnerable side to King; riven by guilt over the deaths of protestors drawn by his rhetoric, self-doubt about whether his leadership will achieve civil rights, and shame at his infidelities. The other black leaders Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar J Dorsey), James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), James Forman (Trai Byers), Rev. Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Rev. Vivian (Corey Reynolds), are, perhaps inevitably, less particularised; but the ensemble is equal to the challenge laid down by Oyelowo’s lead performance. Selma is especially interesting when it explores conflict between these men; with egoism and principle equally important in arguments over leadership and non-violence; and when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) arrives in town.

But Selma has heavy baggage. Director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub is not that outrageous. Even if she did rewrite Paul Webb’s script as much as claimed she’d deserve a nod only for writing. The ones hard done by are Oyelowo and cinematographer Bradford Young; who once again does extraordinary things with warm shadows in MLK’s intimate moments of doubt. But the depiction of LBJ, as uninterested in civil rights and conniving at J Edgar sending a sex-tape to Coretta, has been hauled over the coals by Maureen Dowd, and her central charge; “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season”; rings uncomfortably true. Rather David O Russell’s ‘Some of this actually happened’ than claiming your fictions are truer than history.

Selma is an extremely moving, often upsetting, chronicle of an extraordinary event, powered by a magnificent lead performance, but it’s not history and must be taken with much salt.

3.5/5

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