“Selma,” the latest in a long string of strong biopics out over the last year, deserves your undivided attention. As with other marvelous films in this genre that are still playing in theaters awaiting award consideration (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” among the better ones), director Ava DuVernay’s film is a powerful statement—like last year’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave“—about the racist society that has dogged the United States throughout its history. It makes you feel sad to be an American. Yet the strength of the story makes it so riveting that you’ll also want to watch it again, something I said about DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere,” which landed on my Top Ten List of 2012.
In taking on but a three-month sliver in the life of the great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Paul Webb’s screenplay starts with his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo on December 10, 1964, creatively moves the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama from September 15, 1963, in which four black girls were killed (it’s an alarming sequence), bulks up with the political and emotional chess match between Lyndon Baines Johnson (a very fine Tom Wilkerson) and King, climaxes with the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965, and codas with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
British actor David Oyelowo is finally getting noticed by the mainstream audiences after years in smaller roles (including “Middle of Nowhere“), and he’s all but certain to have an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work here. Similar in stature to King, Oyelowo, who read the script back in 2007 (the year he moved to the United States), he began a multi-year study bulking up to play the historic figure, even if the project fluttered among various directors, including Lee “The Butler” Daniels and Steven Spielberg (who has a separate King project in the works). This holiday season he’s also got a juicy featured role in “A Most Violent Year,” and a supporting part in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” But it is in “Selma” that you will find his most earnest portrayal as the ordinary man performing extraordinary deeds.
DuVernay surrounds him with a marvelous cast. The supporting female actors include Oprah Winfrey (also producing here) as the resilient Annie Lee Cooper, whose strong determination to vote is brushed back by Southern bigotry, enforced by the savagery of segregationist Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). Carmen Ejogo portrays Coretta Scott King (as she did in HBO’s 2001 telepic “Boycott”) now with a stoicism of knowing the danger of the times, the enormity of the struggle in which she and her husband were at the forefront, and her personal issues dealing with her husband’s infidelity. Recording artist Ledisi Young registers as Mahalia Jackson, and Lorraine Touissant (“Orange Is the New Black”) appears as Amelia Boynton, a widow who was in the center of Selma’s civil rights battle and was instrumental in organizing the march.
Appealing performances for the activists surrounding King are handled well by Common (James Bevel), André Holland (Andrew Young), and Wendell Pierce as Reverend Hosea Williams, later a leader of the SCLC.
Shot in Alabama, the film’s atmosphere feels incredibly authentic (perfectly captured by director of photography Bradford Young and production designed Mark Friedberg), especially as the bloody confrontations surrounding the Edmund Pettus Bridge were telecast to an appalled public.
“Selma” is a hard film to watch, particularly with the events of Ferguson still in the headlines and on our minds. Taking a step back 50 years to the formative events of the mid-1960s only hammers home the point that, despite the best intentions to come to final terms with racial inequality, there is still a long road ahead for equal opportunity for all. For those of us who lived through those times, the guilt is still with us, in some form or another. To the youngsters of today, hopefully “Selma” will provide a springboard to ultimately fulfilling Dr. King’s dream.