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6 February 2015 Film


Selma is being called a Martin Luther King Jr biopic, but that’s not entirely accurate. What makes director Ava DuVernay’s celebrated drama more than just another hagiographic history lesson is that it’s not concerned with being a birth-to-death look at one man’s life, like Ray (about Ray Charles, 2004) or Milk (about Harvey Milk, 2008). Instead, it’s about a moment in time (the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches) that just happened to pivot around King, the imposing and charismatic figurehead of the African-American civil rights movement.

Selma is bursting with characters that found themselves confronting a nation’s prejudices. One of Selma’s greatest achievements is how well it balances the many strands of its sprawling narrative.

In telling such an important story, it could have been easy for DuVernay and her producers (including Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt) to play it safe. Such fears are quickly appeased by  an early scene of soul-shaking brutality, which sets the pace for the film that follows. DuVernay doesn’t shy away from the darkness that engulfed America through the 1960s, but still allows the light to shine through in moments of clear-eyed optimism and humanity.

King is the calm centre of a storm that continues to swirl across the US today. The film’s awfully well-timed release holds a mirror up to contemporary police and political brutality – specifically against black and working-class citizens.

King’s story is delivered by a formidable force in British actor David Oyelowo. He is matched by a superb roster of supporting actors, who are given space to fully embody their characters. Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife, Coretta, and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B Johnson are especially good. But it’s Oprah Winfrey as iconic activist Annie Lee Cooper who packs the biggest punch – literally, as the case may be, considering Cooper’s actions on the movement’s battlefront.

Selma will fast become a classic.  It’s a defining account of an era that  will always remain relevant. DuVernay’s film doesn’t go into every facet of King’s life, and nor should it. It’s called Selma for a reason: this isn’t a film about King so much as it is about a movement and everybody involved.

This story is powerful and inspiring stuff. The skill used to tell it should be witnessed by all.

Glenn Dunks