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Oyelowo is electric as Martin Luther King, Jr. in DuVernay’s period drama which positions King as a general in the war against racism.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth
Country: USA, UK
Runtime: 128 mins
Release date: 6 February 2015
Selma is a historical drama, a depiction of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches held in 1965, which were a pivotal point in the Civil Rights Movement. But it is also a war film. A black woman being denied the right to vote at the registration office is the opening salvo. There is talk of armies and front lines, there are skirmishes and parleys. And Martin Luther King, Jr. is the general standing over it all, devising strategies and deploying his troops.
By 1965 African-Americans had gained the right to vote, but many Southern states were still placing barriers in their way. To fight this new battle, King (David Oyelowo) chose the town of Selma, Alabama as his staging ground. Oyelowo is electric as King. In the speeches he gives his followers (rewritten by director Ava DuVernay, as the film rights to King’s original speeches lie elsewhere), Oyelowo performs an expert balancing act, between eloquent advocacy of nonviolence and a fervent passion that threatens, in the eyes of his opponents, to incite the same violence he wishes to avoid. Elsewhere, Oyelowo shows us a man in danger of cracking under the immense burden placed upon him, by his followers, by history, by himself.
When King’s followers clash with the Selma authorities, outside the registration office or on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, DuVernay presents it as the clashing of armies. Her camera captures the opposing forces in the same way a Roman epic or high fantasy might. These clashes end with flashes of violence, shocking in their suddenness. A skirmish at the bridge plays out like a fog-shrouded massacre.
For all of that, Selma is not a violent film. Its blows and gunshots are not graphic, but they are an unflinching depiction of the kind of racial violence that we like to forget ever happened, and perhaps like to ignore happening now.
All of this might give the impression that Selma is a grim film, and for a time it is. But any student of history knows the outcome here, both the immediate aftermath and the greater cultural consequences. When the dust has settled, Selma is a triumphant film. Not sentimental, or self-aggrandising, but joyous in the triumph of nonviolence and acceptance over aggression and hatred.