Sunday, January 25, 2015


***1/2 out of ****

In Selma, David Oyelowo, an actor who does not resemble Dr.Martin Luther King, does wonders in humanizing the saintly historical figure as a brilliant strategist in non-violent protest. Director Ava DuVernay, working with a screenplay that was restricted from using any of King’s actual speeches finds a formula similar to what we saw in Spielberg’s Lincoln*. It focuses on one section of the hero’s legacy in order to ground the film, rather than stuff it with an entire life story.

We get to see a man behind the public persona, filled with frustration as he fights for voting rights through life-risking demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, where he accurately estimates that media exposure of the inevitable police brutality will bring support to their cause. In the company of Ralph Abernathy (Coleman Domingo), James Bevel (Common) and student organizers like the young John Lewis (Stephan James), a great movement begins -and all following King's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize when he knew his work was far from over. 

We also see his interactions with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), which are rightfully the source of historical criticism. Johnson is portrayed as hesitant to jeopardize his other goals, but it is debated that Johnson was, in fact, very cooperative with King.

One must ask why Lyndon Johnson needed to be yet another obstacle, requiring manipulation in a story where George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the Alabama state police are already a source of great villainy.

The film has some distracting casting. Oprah Winfrey is so good as Annie Lee Cooper in her one dialogue scene, that I was hoping for the movie to be more focused on her story. There are also a lot of famous white people playing historic figures whose roles in the film may have had more weight, if I didn't associate their recognizable faces with their body of work. Stephen Root is always good, though.

Selma is a historical biopic and bound to be filled with embellishments, but it is thankfully focused on communicating the essentially important aspects of its history lesson through skillful traditional drama. 

{*Side note: It's interesting that Oyelowo was in the first scene in "Lincoln" as a vocal black Union soldier sharing a vision with the President, by listing all the things African Americans might be allowed when freed, concluding with "the vote."}

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