Movie Review: Selma

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film publisher or graphic artist.)

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Distributors: Paramount Pictures (US), 20th Century Fox (UK) and StudioCanal (Australia)
Production Companies: Cloud Eight Films, Harpo Films, Plan B Entertainment and Pathé
Director: Ava DuVernay
Producers: Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner
Scriptwriters: Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay (uncredited)
Main Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey
Released: December 25 2014 (US) and February 6 2015 (UK)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Certificate: 12A

When one thinks of Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the mind immediately recalls the famous “I have a dream” speech from 1963. This new movie about MLK, however, focuses not on arguably the most famous words of the 20th century, but on King’s describe in Selma in 1965.

After opening with an unexpected twist at the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize presentation in Oslo, Norway, where King (played by David Oyelowo) is presented with the prize, the plot focuses on the racial prejudice towards black people that at that point remained prevalent in parts of the US, particularly when it came to voting. Whilst King asks then-President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to consider passing legislation that would allow blacks to vote unencumbered, Johnson notes that there are more pressing issues that he has to take care of. (Incidentally, critics have argued that Johnson is portrayed here as someone who just does not want to give King what he wants, whereas in reality their relationship was far more cordial.)

However, not only are blacks not being allowed to vote, but as they protest, they are the victims of racist hate attacks. By 1965, mass matches are planned from Selma to Montgomery which, they hope, will bring about change. They do not succeed at first due to the increasingly brutal response of the state’s law enforcement, but as these vicious beatings are broadcast across the country, a growing number of white Americans join their side, which prepares big questions as the film nears its climax: can the addition of white supporters boost the chances of black people getting to vote? Can King himself handle managing these marches? And at what point will President Johnson be forced to recognise that enough is enough and that passing the requested legislation will bring about an end to the tension?

Even if you are unfamiliar with American history (and whilst I was familiar with Dr. King, I did not know the full story behind these marches), you can probably guess the ending, based purely on the way in which the world has changed since the 1960s, a perfect example being the election of the first black US President, Barack Obama, in 2008.

The performances are very powerful (in particular, Oyelowo is totally believable as King), and the scenes are at times excruciatingly graphic. Some will undoubtedly leave you thinking “How could they do this to those people?”, which is a sign of how realistic such moments are played out. And the ending should, if not bring a smile to your face, at least make you feel like justice has been done.

On the other hand, I found that the movie dragged; had it been 90 minutes, with insignificant scenes cut, it would have held my attention more, as not a lot happened for large points. To reflect racist views of many Americans in the era, there is a lot of discriminatory language used which may be unsettling to viewers. Some historical inaccuracies have been noted, one of which was touched upon earlier. And some were disappointed that the film focused more on King than the Selma situation itself. Also, the costs of using Martin’s speeches verbatim were so high that some important dialogue is changed to avoid paying royalties (this is one reason why we get no reference to the “I have a dream” speech, even as a way of introducing King at the beginning).

On the whole, though, I think Selma is worth seeing. I wouldn’t class it as one of the year’s finest movies, but the strong, believable performances of the leading cast and the significance of what the story achieved in reality make this a compelling viewing experience.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 – Good