Most feature films are made with the primary intention of being entertaining, but there are also movies that are legitimately important. Like any other art form, filmmaking provides an opportunity for an artist to take a look at the world around them, reflect it back to an audience in a meaningful way, and completely change the way we look at a subject. With her new Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, director Ava DuVernay has created one of these legitimately important film, as the story may take place in the 1960s, but it also has something vital to say about the scary societal climate in which it’s being released.
With the cases involving Eric Garner and Michael Brown looming in our collective consciousness, Selma explores one of the most important periods of the Civil Rights Movement in America, as Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) took his peaceful campaign to Selma, Alabama, where he brought together his supporters to fight for their right to vote unencumbered by racial bias. Of course, this was a time of extreme fear and hate, as everyone from President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to the local sheriff in Selma fought against real progress and change, but as Paul Webb’s dramatic and engaging unfolds, King and his supporters are able to stand tough through all of the intense threats and serious violence and make their call for equality be heard around the nation.
In her approach to adapting what is easily one of the most significant chapters in United States history, Ava DuVernay truly takes an unflinching approach – both in the how she shows the displays of extreme brutality experienced by activists, as well as the portrayal of the legendary Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Really working to capture the reality of the experience instead of merely doing something gratuitous, there are key scenes in the movie that are legitimately hard to watch and tear-inducing, as DuVernay makes the horror and passion of hate palpable and devastating. These sequences do suffer a touch from over-stylization at certain points, as certain techniques take the audience momentarily out of the scene, but its diminishing impact is only slight.
Selma also has every opportunity to simply portray Martin Luther King Jr. as a pure saint, working endlessly and tirelessly until his people have the same rights as all other free Americans, but the film’s instead captures the man’s real humanity and really gives us a three dimensional view of who he was. The movie does depict him as a hero, as he surely is in the context of U.S. history, but it’s powerful to see King depicted in his moments of weakness and doubt, such as making a late night phone call to his favorite gospel singer so that he can hear god’s voice and stop being afraid of what’s to come.
It’s DuVernay and Webb who deserve credit for building a narrative that gives us such a complete view of the civil rights leader, but it’s David Oyewolo who brings it home with a staggering performance. Selma begins with a shot of King standing in the mirror as he prepares to go accept his Nobel Peace Prize, and with his southern drawl affectation and thin mustache, Oyewolo disappears into the role from the first frame and never emerges. Because of the complexity of the character, the performance obviously proves to be a challenging one, but there is no side of King that the actor doesn’t adapt beautifully, whether he’s on the pulpit and making a call to action, or privately mourning the loss of a young man who died in the name of his cause. There are other performances of note in the film, such as Tom Wilkinson’s rather duplicitous President Johnson to Stephan James and Trai Byers as young activists trying to find their role in the civil rights fight, but Selma is ultimately Oyewolo’s show.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the Civil Rights Movement was only about 50 years, but given everything that’s been going on in our society over the last few weeks and months it seems that we are in need of a history lesson – and Selma is here to deliver it in dynamic and dramatic fashion. There’s no better time than now for this movie to be coming out, and it’s not only worth seeing, but important to see.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.