With my annual Oscar predictions, I make it my mission to watch all of the current year’s nominees for Best Picture and then write a review on it. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Selma before the Oscars. Which is a shame since this was one of the best picture nominees I wanted to see the most. But over the weekend, I was finally able to see a matinee of the film. Though I couldn’t review the movie before the Oscars, I will still keep the promise of writing a review of the film. So here is my review of Selma, the biopic of civil rights activist Martin Luther King.
As the film begins, King (David Oyelowo) is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent campaign for civil rights. It’s 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has signed the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wants King’s help to promote his war on poverty campaign. But King isn’t done yet. Even though segregation is illegal, the south is still depriving African American of basic dignities, especially the right to vote. So King will begin a campaign for equal voting rights. With a group of fellow civil rights activists, He sets up his campaign in Selma, Alabama where there was a bombing. Of course he meets with violent opposition, especially from Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), who’s attitude toward civil rights can be perfectly sums up with his “Segregation Forever” speech. King also has FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) spying on him and listening to his phone calls.
To be more accurate, this is a biopic that only focuses on King’s equal rights campaign. There seems to be a growing trend of biopics only focusing on one moment of the subjects’ life. While previous biopics try to bring as many of the person’s highlights as possible, there are a few biopics that take place on one major event in the person’s life. While it has been successful in films like Lincoln, it has mostly been a major disaster with films like Diana, Grace and Hyde Park in Hudson. Fortunately, Selma fits in the former category. The problem with the bad biopics is that the events aren’t that interesting.
Screenwriter Paul Webb and Director Ava DuVerney took a big gamble having the film take place after the Civil Rights Act is signed. For a film about Martin Luther King, one would think that the film would focus on the Montgomery Bus boycott or the March on Washington. But then it starts making sense once you start thinking about it. First of all, it serves as a reminder that the Civil Rights Act didn’t completely eradicated segregation. There was still resistance from the south. The film seems to argue that the Civil Rights Act may have brought the end of segregation but it was the Equal Rights Act that sealed the deal. After all, to not have the right to vote is to be kept voiceless.
While writing about this film, I began to notice similarities between this film and Lincoln. First of all, they bring a surprising amount of emphasis on the supporting characters. While King is the main focus of the film, Webb and DuVerney show a team who made their own impact. This introduces us to civil rights activists including Religious figures James Bevel (Common) and Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and average folks including Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) and Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey). The ones who stands out the most is Andrew Young (Andre Holland), who sums up the power of non-violent protest when he talks a man out of turning a gun on police.
Another similarity between these movies is the emphasis on strategy. Throughout the film, people are gathered together to strategize a way to meet their goals. In private, we see Martin Luther King going over his speeches, calculating the emphasis of every word. Civil Rights activists discuss how to protect themselves from violent racists. Colonel Al Lingo (Stephen Root) works with Wallace to come up with means to intimidate the civil right activists. Even Johnson’s assistant warns King’s partners of a potential threat at a town.
There is also a strong emphasis on the human side of these activists. Oyelowo does an excellent job of portraying King. He captures the power of King’s speeches and the strength of his posture. At the same time, he also brings out the humanity of King, from his sense of humor around friends to his contained anger when Johnson rejects his requests. His humanity especially comes in full form through scenes with his wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo). Ejogo gives an underrated performance of a woman who has grown accustomed to death threats over the phone and yet lives with the dread of her husband never returning. A particularly powerful scene is when she asks him is he loves her. When he confirms, she asks if he loved the women he had affairs with.
Of course, with the peaceful protests, there are scenes of strong violence. And it is very had to watch innocent people being beaten bloody by authorities. There is one scene in a diner that is depressingly relevant to the police shootings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
When the film ended, the Oscar winning song Glory by John Legend and Common played during the credits. The audience sat still throughout the song. This is the impact of Selma, a powerful depiction of the resistant fight for freedom. And yes, I agree it was robbed of many Oscar nominations. DuVerney was robbed of being the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director. Oyelowo was robbed of the nomination for Best Actor. Webb was robbed of Best Original Screenplay. Ejogo wasn’t even close to being considered for Best Supporting Actress, which is a shame. But then again, awards don’t always make the film. After all, there are a lot of great movies that didn’t get the nominations they deserved. If someone is making a movie just for awards, they’re making these movies for the wrong reason. Only time will decide how great a movie like Selma will be. And I’m pretty sure time will be on its side.