Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Editor
Selma takes place in 1965 during Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights marches for black voting rights, but because of this year’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, the story couldn’t feel more modern. Ava DuVernay (director of the Sundance hit Middle of Nowhere) grounds Paul Webb’s script and makes the film a rare period piece that has a distinct look, setting it apart from the endlessly identical films set during the same time.
When we first see King (David Oyelowo), he’s in Norway accepting the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He can’t seem to find acceptance in his home, but by traveling overseas, he finds a whole room of white men who present him with an award and applaud his efforts. Back in America, he meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who supports King but isn’t quite willing to face the diplomatic challenges of what King asks of him. King, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and his team (cast with the likes of André Holland, Tessa Thompson, Common and Wendell Pierce) head to Selma, Alabama, where they begin to assemble people to march on Montgomery and protest the challenges involved with voting rights.
DuVernay creates a lot of tension around these marches, showcasing the threat of violence for anyone walking the streets during or after the first protest. The film struggles with its PG-13 rating, as the horrifying acts of injustice that hit hard still feel somewhat neutered, since they’re so bloodless. Still, DuVernay and her cinematographer, Bradford Young (the MVP of the film), craft some powerful and enraging sequences that make Selma much more than just a generic MLK biopic.
Another thing that helps is how good Oyelowo is as one of the most notable public figures in American history. Part of why Oyelowo works so well in the role is because he’s somewhat of an unknown entity to audiences. He’s had bit parts in movies all over the place, from Jack Reacher to The Butler, but unlike in the case of someone like LeVar Burton or Jeffrey Wright (who both previously portrayed King), the audience has no real preconceptions about Oyelowo. He can disappear into the role the way a “movie star” never could. Supporting players often have that exact problem; when people like Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Oprah Winfrey show up for just a few scenes, it gets a bit distracting.
A film like Selma could easily fall into being generic awards season fodder—an indulgent, star-studded history movie like The Butler, whose director Lee Daniels was in fact at one time slated to shoot Paul Webb’s script. But DuVernay manages to avoid that feeling, establishing herself as one of the most exciting new voices at the movies today.
Overall Grade: B+