Historical epic, Selma, which depicts one of the most significant campaigns during the American Civil Rights Movement, has, ironically, a very British feel to proceedings. English-born David Oyelowo leads the way as Martin Luther King, and is joined by fellow compatriots Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth and Carmen Ejogo, in what is a rousing, though somewhat disjointed, Oscar contender.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film looks at the turbulent 1965 civil rights campaign in Selma which was instigated by MLK and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in order to force the Johnson administration’s hand on the matter of equal voting rights for African Americans. The unprovoked brutality that the non-violent campaigners faced in Selma, which was broadcast across the globe, culminated in President Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the greatest achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.
The momentous events of Selma appear to play second fiddle to the film’s real focus: the life and times of King during this short, but eventful, three month period. This MLK biopic zooms in on the legendary figures relationships with the movement, his family and, most interestingly, the presidency. With so much to chew on in such a short space of time, tooing and throwing between the different aspects of his life left certain areas feeling a little undercooked. The strain his lifestyle had on his marriage to wife, Coretta (Ejogo), was timidly explored, as one shocking revolution was too quickly brushed under the carpet. King’s relationship with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) played out like a boxing dual; as every round went on each man grew wearier of the other, and as voices grew louder and words became harsher, you get the sense something was, sooner rather than later, going to give.
Oyelowo’s graceful portrayal of the man himself, was, at times, intoxicating. Get that man in front of a microphone and it truly felt like the real Martin Luther King had been brought back to life, such was the sheer presence the English actor held on screen. In comparison, Tim Roth’s laughable American accent as he tried, in vain, to replicate Alamba’s racist governor’s, George Wallace, southern tones was an unwanted, although rather humorous, distraction.
Selma‘s greatest strength, other than its central performance, is when we are transported into the heart of the campaign on the streets. A striking scene which takes place on a bridge between campaigners and local police is shot expertly, using a mix of sound and slow-mo visuals to really build-up the intensity of proceedings. It does, at times, however, feel like DuVernay’s work becomes patchy, and, disappointingly, feels a little safe. A short scene involving MLK’s rival, Malcolm X, felt forced, and there are lots of hints and suggestions of things which do not get fully developed. A momentous event, a legendary man, but a film – despite several plus points – which fails to reach the same lofty heights.