Selma (2014) review

The film follows Dr. Martin Luther King during the summer of 1964 as he organizes and prepares to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery. In the South, where despite lip-service being paid to equality legislation racial tensions still run high often with violent or fatal consequences and black people are routinely prevented from voting, King has his work cut out for him. When the president tells King that he will not be focussing on enforcing laws allowing black people to vote in the south, the civil rights leader decides that he will travel to Alabama to engage in peaceful protest in an attempt to change minds.

A commanding central performance by David Oyelowo carries the drama and we get not only the famous public face of Martin Luther King, but also a look at the private life of the man behind the historic speeches. Along with Carmen Ejogo, who plays his wife Coretta King, we get a portrait of an ordinary man who made an extraordinary contribution to the civil rights movement. The film starts with the two of them and throughout the film shows the personal toll King's actions are taking on him and his wife and friends. We also see the horror of institutional racism, with police and judges displaying no empathy as the brutally deal with the peaceful protestors. Tom Wilkinson plays President Lyndon B. Johnson, frustrated by King's influence and popularity and wishing that the whole problem would just disappear. Johnson is portrayed more as an obstacle to equality through his unwillingness to act rather than necessarily opposed to King's goal. The real villainous role belongs to Tim Roth, the racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who seems to be struggling to come to terms with the concept of equal rights, and offended that King is even considering demanding them. Although only a half century ago, it may be hard for modern viewers to understand or recognize a society where racism was such an ingrained mentality, but this film does a great job of taking you into that world of shocking sentiments.

Ava DuVernay's direction helps creates a sense of the importance of this story and of King's role. The sequences of marches and speeches are like a general leading his troops into battle. Religion played a major role in King's life and we are given the barnstorming sermons that typified his speech, quoting scripture and his unwavering certainty that one day they would be vindicated. There are a few nice touches, such as occasional FBI notes appearing on screen to show that King was being monitored as a radical throughout his career. As a historical drama it doesn't get too bogged down in exposition or characters, with everything being presented naturally helped by a great supporting cast. The music is a fantastic mix of southern blues and gospel choirs that helps place it in time and creates a vibrancy and sense of vast cultural upheaval through the off-beat improvisational nature of the score.

An important story about an incredible historical figure. Worth watching if you want to understand what was happening at that time and why King is rightly remembered as such an important part of the equal rights movement.