A Fitting Tribute
Historical figures got the royal treatment in 2014. Everyone from Alan Turing to Stephen Hawking to Chris Kyle had biopics celebrating their lives and accomplishments. Need proof? Four out the five nominees for Best Actor are real life characters.
Selma, the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s pivotal civil rights march to Montgomery, is the most historically important genre film this year. It’s also been the most snubbed. Driven by an impressive performance by David Oyelowo (The Butler, Red Tails), Selma is powerful yet slightly formulaic tribute to one of the most important men in American history.
The movie opens in 1964 as Dr. King receives his Nobel Peace Prize for championing nonviolent civil rights protests and driving the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But there was still work to be done. Using archaic red tape, Southern states were still making it next to impossible for African Americans to vote. No black vote meant no change in power. Dr. King, with members of the SCLC, head to Selma, Alabama to plan a march on the state capital that would bring America one stop closer to racial equality.
Choosing the march on Montgomery was a smart one by writer/director Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere). Rather than focusing on Birmingham or “I Have a Dream”, the town of Selma serves as a great setting to learn how the SCLC worked, from planning to protest. It also provides more tension due to its relative obscurity.
Being a lesser known event also gives the film more room to bring in the “other side” of the struggle. By this time, King was a regular at the White House and his interactions with Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and other governing bodies provide a unique perspective to the politics behind civil rights. Other than the nefariously racist town sheriff Jim Clark and Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), everyone is given a reason for their actions.
While the movie may be more about the events at Selma, David Oyelowo’s role as the good doctor is the star of the show. MLK is too big of a character to not be. Oyelowo nails every piece of King’s personality and mannerisms. From his signature speaking cadence to his facial expressions, Oyelowo portrayal is film reel perfect. His speech delivery, of which there are quite a few, is powerful and stirring. I felt like I was back in 1964.
Unfortunately, it’s really just a portrayal as Oyelowo never becomes Dr. King. While this is the fine line between great and exceptional, it’s probably the reason for the Oscar snubs. We see him triumph over evil with nonviolence and we learn about what he did for the state of Alabama but we never get a real sense of who he is as a person. The man behind the movement.
Much of this can be attributed to a solid yet uninspired screenplay. The dialogue between him and his wife (Carmen Ejogo) swerves into hammy territory and while attempts are made to showcase the effect his crusade has on his family, the interpersonal connections never quite click.
But this doesn’t hurt the movie from a narrative standpoint. There’s more than enough power in what Dr. King did to drive the story. Events like “Bloody Sunday” are heartbreaking and visceral while King’s roadblocks, both with other activists and local authorities, give the conflict depth and context. Visual flourishes like the occasional slow motion shot gives the standard cinematography some pop and the supporting cast ranges from good to serviceable. Sorry, but Oprah and Common need to stop acting.
Making a movie about the greatest civil rights leader in American history is a tough task. It carries impossibly high expectations. Despite its pitfalls, Selma is still a towering tribute to an important figure, even if it plays more like a high school filmstrip than a real drama. While many may argue the movie is a documentation of a historical event, Dr. King’s power and legacy is the pulsing heart, impossible to ignore. Still, an important story told with power and conviction.
Score: 8 out of 10