The new year is just two weeks old, and it has already been kind enough to give us the first must-see film of the year.
“Selma” is the story of one of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s: the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery to protest the suppression of black voters in that state.
Alabama served as a particularly fertile battle ground for much of the Civil Rights fight, thanks in large part to Gov. George Wallace’s staunchly segregationist stance and his willingness in allowing his state police officers to enforce those beliefs with violence. On the other side of the fight were hundreds of African American organizers and Martin Luther King Jr., leading the way. With Wallace providing such a willing foil, and King’s realization that the fight needed to be brought into America’s living rooms via television for any progress to be made, black and white clashed everywhere in the state from Montgomery to Mobile to Selma.
“Selma,” picks up the story shortly before the march itself and follows King as he attempts to sway President Lyndon B. Johnson on the idea of supporting voting rights, while simultaneously organizing the Selma march, struggling with the internal stress that was being placed on his family and working under the twin specters of white racist harassment and FBI surveillance.
In every regard, in every way possible, “Selma” is a creative triumph.The writing is top notch and easily avoids the common pitfall of hero worship — showing that humans are capable of great things, but it does not stop us from continuing to be humans. King, played here impeccably by David Oyelowo, is shown to be frequently fearful and plagued by bouts of self-doubt. The film touches briefly on the marital infidelities that existed on both sides of the King marriage but looks at the issue more as ammunition for a hostile government agency to use against him and less as a personal failing of either King or his wife.
While Oyelowo stands to get the lion’s share of the praise for the film — and with good reason — it would be folly to dismiss the efforts of the supporting cast, most notably Tim Roth’s efforts in portraying Gov. Wallace and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. A scene during the film’s second act is a high point, as LBJ tries to convince Wallace to allow the marchers safe passage, while the latter beguilingly pretends that the matter is out of his hands.
Outside of the acting, “Selma” stands as a master class in exposition and emotional tension, with a tight script courtesy of Paul Webb and a score by Jason Moran that is perfectly delivered. Director Ava DuVernay, a relative newcomer and a definite Hollywood outsider, handles the film with a deft touch that belies her inexperience with a project of this magnitude. Any urges she felt to make the film artificially dramatic were suppressed, and the film and its actors are allowed room to breathe and develop naturally.
From strong narrative storytelling to pitch-perfect performances and a gorgeous score, “Selma” hits every one of its notes virtually flawlessly. By hook or by crook, see this film. CV