Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
Directed by: Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”)
Written by: Paul Webb (debut)
As such an important figure in the history of the United States, it is equal parts incredible and perplexing to think that there has yet to be a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. First out of the gate, however, is Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” and despite a few roadblocks in production, her film feels very much worth the wait.
In 1965, African Americans were legally allowed to vote, yet many in the South were still facing unfair restrictions as they tried to register. Unable to get President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law prohibiting these unfair voting restrictions, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and other members of his movement decide to organize a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama as the culmination of a series of dangerous protests.
Any discussion of “Selma” starts and ends with David Oyelowo’s electric portrayal of Dr. King. As magnetic as any performance this year, Oyelowo completely embodies King, bringing life, nuance, and often times subtlety to a larger-than-life figure. Oyelowo is, of course, at his absolute finest when he is delivering energetic and intense speeches, yet there are smaller moments such as a scene with the father of a member of the movement who has been killed that really show the depth of performance. As his foil, a hard-edged Wilkinson makes for a great LBJ, stonewalling King in his quest for legislation.
In an interesting wrinkle, the rights to King’s actual speeches reside with another studio and were not able to be purchased by the filmmakers of “Selma.” As such, director DuVernay was tasked with re-writing King’s speeches for the film. Her work is exceptional, as she is able to skirt by copyright law and give the character rousing material sounding exactly like King’s actual speeches. Of course, it helps to have Oyelowo giving her words such dramatic weight.
Though largely coincidental, “Selma” happens to be a film that is incredibly timely. Moviegoers will undoubtedly notice parallels between what they’ve seen on TV from Ferguson, Missouri and the events of the film, especially as police launch tear gas at protestors. If nothing else, the comparisons reinforce the still reverberating racial tension that reached a fever pitch in the most intense sequences of “Selma” and carry on through the country today.
By focusing on just the voting rights marches, screenwriter Paul Webb successfully avoids one of the most common pitfalls of biopics, which is casting too big of a net and spanning too much of a subjects life. In keeping things condensed, Webb’s story is able to resonate deeper and leads to a clean and powerful story arc. Anchored by Oyelowo’s performance, “Selma” is the rare Hollywood biopic that is as raw as it is polished and powerful, making it one of the better civil rights movies in recent memory.