Selma movie review

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One of the first scenes in director Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jnr. biopic Selma takes place at the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, where the late civil rights activist accepts the highest accolade of his life.
DuVernay doesn’t make too much of it: we’re in the room for only half a minute or so and barely see the audience’s standing ovation before the words of Luther’s speech (“what the illusion of supremacy has destroyed the truth of equality can nourish…”) are overlaid onto vision of well-dressed African American children descending a staircase tinged in beautiful golden light emanating from the window.
Their hands run down the banister as they glide past intricate leadlights. Girls exchange innocuous chatter about haircuts. Less than five minutes in, the tone correctly implies we are about to watch a film of deep dignity and purpose. A prestige picture not just handsomely shot (rich looking aesthetic is par for the course in the ‘For Your Consideration’ genre) but dramatically understated.
In a heartbeat everything changes. The tranquility of the scene is blown to smithereens when a pretty girl’s words are cut short by a massive bomb blast. Still graded in oranges and warm hues, the scene morphs into close ups of legs rotating through the frame – as if the victims are drowning – before cutting to a birds eye shot of bodies toppled by rubble.
This moment of visceral impact is unmatched by anything else in the remaining two and a bit hours. Its impact hovers like a dark cloud over everything that follows, giving scenes that might otherwise have felt lighter and nimbler an unspoken urgency. We know DuVernay is capable of shocking tonal shifts. She never again has to remind us that reality – depending on who, when and where you are – can morph into a nightmare.
The resulting Best Picture Oscar nominee, so well crafted and performed that its failure to get nominated in the acting or directing categories has been interpreted as an epic snub from the Academy, is one marked in part by restraint. There are no twee re-enactments of King as a child asking mom and pop about equality. There are no present day images of flowers draping over his memorial.
DuVernay (who also directed the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself) entrusts the viewer to understand the significance of events leading up to the change of America’s voting rights in 1965. And while that significance is regularly emphasised through powerful vignettes and scenes of political negotiation, that trust in the audience’s ability to feel and think on their own terms is never broken.
Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is denied the right to register to vote, which turns the attention of the African-American Civil Rights Movement onto the town and leads to a historic 50 mile march into Montgomery, Alabama’s capital.
At one point a huge group sits outside the Selma registration office, hands clasped behind their necks. Much tension revolves around such moments of peaceful protest, King as the tempering force playing the ball and not the person – in the most trying of circumstances.
Often when it seems as if the film is about to spill into hot-blooded moments of confrontation, DuVernay rearranges potentially violent polemic to a more complex context: personal, political and legal. It’s as if King’s legacy, remembered in part for his inspiring ability to maintain moral high ground, has informed everything from Selma’s sense of style to the grace of its performances.
A calibre ensemble fill out the supporting cast; word must have got around about the quality of debut screenwriter Paul Webb’s script. It was coveted by several major directors (including Michael Mann and Spike Lee) before coming to DuVernay. Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Cuba Gooding Jnr., Tim Roth and Martin Sheen have small roles, with Tom Wilkinson given the meatiest side part as LBJ.
Supporting characters often behave like constructs designed to contrast the protagonist’s unwavering temperament, which seems to strengthen DuVernay’s resolve to get the heart and soul — the portrayal of King — absolutely right. Englishman David Oyelowo’s performance is one the classiest you’ll see for some time. It does the film and its subject justice; that, of course, is no easy feat.

3 responses to “Selma movie review

  1. Great review. But DuVernay did not direct ‘Life Itself,’ although she appears in it. It was directed by Steve James.

  2. I agree with he reviewer that this film does not focus on the large story of Martin Luther King. The filmmaker takes us to the small town of Selma and shows that addressing small injustices can lead to large change.

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