Release Date: 6 February 2015
Running Time: 128 min
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Tessa Thompson
A group of peaceful protestors are set upon by police and vigilante mobs as they attempt to cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and leave the small town of Selma, Alabama. As millions of Americans watch horrified at home on their television, unarmed men and women as young as twenty and as old as eighty are whipped, clubbed and throttled.
It’s 1965 and several southern American states are still reluctant to address the growing Civil Rights Movement. As African-American citizens are effectively disenfranchised due to arcane and prejudiced voter registration procedures in large swathes of Alabama, the town of Selma has become a battleground for the voting rights of its black population. With President Lyndon Johnson reluctant to throw his weight behind the campaign for voting rights, Nobel Peace Prize winning Civil Rights figurehead Martin Luther King steps into the fray in an attempt to force the president’s hand.
Rather than a conventional biopic of Dr King, Selma focuses on one of the landmark campaigns in his struggle for racial equality. In doing so, director Ava DuVernay is able to neatly avoid falling into the pitfalls of myth-making – this is a film about King’s struggles rather than his iconic status – bringing a sense of moral outrage and urgency to something that could easily have been a saccharine hagiography of the man.
It’s no surprise then that this emotionally charged drama picked up a lot of Oscar buzz on its release in America, being rewarded with a nomination for Best Picture as a result. While it’s not as technically audacious as fellow nominee Birdman or as experimental in form and structure as the likes of Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel, what it does have in its favour is that it’s a strong story worth telling and one that has been told well. It’s also bolstered by a wonderful (and unnominated) central performance by David Oyelowo who completely inhabits the role of King.
There is a strong sense of geography and period on show, with the simmering racial tension of a fearful, bigoted Alabama town captured well. Yet there is also a richness and warmth to the image, with rooms bathed in an autumnal glow of golden browns and honey yellows. Credit is also due to director DuVernay for giving a voice to the women who were part of the Civil Rights Movement; it is often women who take decisive steps in Selma, from Oprah Winfrey’s protestor to campaign strategist Diane Nash, they are shown as key players in the struggle of the time.
A solidly made, powerfully acted drama, Selma is inspiring in its message if, at times, a little staid in its delivery. A fascinating insight into a particular moment in history, it’s also still depressingly relevant. Just look at Ferguson Missouri to see how far we’ve come in the years since.