A well-acted but disappointing portrait of a great man that fails to capitalise fully on its revolutionary potential.
Cinema is full of great stories; uplifting, powerful, moving and proactive. For the exploits of Martin Luther King Jr. you’d expect there to have already been an Oscar hoarding epic. You would be wrong. If you’re expecting Selma to provide the definitive King biopic then you’ll be left disappointed.
It is inevitable that any discussion of Ava DuVernay’s film must consider recent events across the Atlantic. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers have renewed public distrust in the law, with outrage crossing racial groups. With this in mind, Selma had the potential to call into question the progress that has actually been made since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The film documents King’s attempts to gain equal voting rights through a march between Selma and Montgomery in the rigidly conservative southern state of Alabama. It was a crucial event in the Civil Rights movement but one that in DuVernay’s hands fails to make good cinema.
The film opens with King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) preparing on the night where he will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a tender scene that offers an intimate insight into the activist’s life. The serenity of this sequence is soon disrupted as a church bombing erupts unexpectedly into the narrative. The event goes without explanation but one is left to assume it to have been a racially motivated attack. It is a striking reminder that despite King’s success prior to 1965, he and the movement still had much work to do in their struggle for equality. These malicious attacks on African Americans are certainly the most compelling moments of the film. The brutality of the Alabama authorities reaches its peak during a scene where the police are ordered to attack a group of African Americans under the cover of darkness. It presents a rare glimpse of artistic individualism in an otherwise austere narrative. In the darkness, the white policemen become the visual equal as those that they attack. This makes the brutality of men attacking their fellow man seem all the more profound. Unfortunately, the film’s lack of stylisation elsewhere make the weakness of the script all the more apparent. The soundtrack is strong but it is not until the credits roll that John Legend and Common’s superb Oscar nominated song ‘Glory’ is deployed, a song which possesses that very stirring quality that Selma lacks.
Oyelowo’s performance is undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of the film. Not only does he look the part, but he sounds it too. He manages to present King’s mortality and the strains that his assumed role as a leader of the Civil Rights movement takes on his relationship with Coretta. Ejogo’s performance is proficient and Tom Wilkinson makes for a convincing President Lyndon Johnson, whilst Tim Roth embodies the archaic nature of the authorities in his role as the reprehensible Governor George Wallace. It is a pity however, that he is used so sparingly in the film. A greater emphasis on his racist politics might have helped in painting a more vivid portrait of conservative thought in the Deep South at the time. DuVernay also underplays the importance of religion for King in rousing his movement. It might make the film more accessible but subsequently dispatches with a key motivation of King’s politics.
The greatest issue with the film comes from its failure to capitalise fully on its revolutionary potential. The trailer suggests a tense, pulsating watch but in reality it’s slow and erratic. It has much to say but unlike the man himself, it lacks conviction. Selma, like King’s dream for contemporary America, is full of promise but it has failed to be fully realised.
Selma (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay, is released in the UK by Pathé Distribution, Certificate 12A.