‘Selma’ Is Incredible, Inspiring, and Important (Movie Review)

selma whysoblu thumbI have been told I have something of a knack for impressions.  Not particularly in how I look or even sound, but in finding the cadence in whatever humorous display I may be attempting to put on.  David Oyelowo does not really look like Martin Luther King, Jr., but he does more than just get the cadence of the man down in Selma.  Oyelowo brings to life the presence and soul of Dr. King in a way that is entirely worthwhile in a film featuring him as both the man and the influential leader that inspired so many.  That is no easy task for an actor or a film that would want to feature such a character in the dominant role. Still, Selma has found a way to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. into a movie, without having to do the heavy-lifting of telling the man’s whole story and trying to truncate all of what he accomplished into a two-hour motion picture.  Instead, fitted with a commanding lead performance, as well as several powerful supporting performances, and plenty of other great filmmaking-related aspects, Selma is a film addressing a particular time in a wonderfully impressive way that is both cinematic and quite relevant to our current time.

Martin Luther King: The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.

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Focusing on the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, Paul Webb has written a script for Selma that centers in on a pivotal time during the American Civil Rights Movement and functions as a stirring character drama, based around real people. ‘Real people’ is a vital aspect of this film, as Selma is not one featuring caricatures of the antagonistic characters on one side while keeping every prominent figure standing up to intolerance depicted as a saint on the other.  This is a film that tries very hard to keep things grounded and let us see the discussions, arguments, attitudes, and whatever else that goes on with all the various figures in this film to have us understand people for being people.  With that in mind, the film feels a lot less like a history lesson being taught and more like an energetic acting exercise, which happens to be centered on a critical time in America.

I can keep focusing on how much of a human-based drama this film is because that really is what I enjoyed most about it.  Putting aside the aspects that get one riled up about the treatment of individuals based on the color of their skin and the politics that come with conversations between Dr. King, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), among others, Selma has the structure of a drama about people talking, with some occasional, intense cinematic moments. And they are all crafted and executed incredibly well by director Ava DuVernay.

That is really what I am proud to see in a film about Martin Luther King, Jr.  No doubt, anyone is in a difficult position when it comes to telling the story of one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. Still, based on both a script that is taking that sort of challenge into account and the fact that this is a reasonably low-budget feature with only so many resources at its disposal, Selma practically has the semblance of a scrappy underdog film that has come out on top in the best of ways.


Putting the focus back on David Oyelowo, in a film that does not feature any of King’s notable speeches in full, due to the producers not having the rights to use them, we see an actor convey through his eyes and in his actions taken in various moments to really delve into the persona of someone aware of the kind of status he has, while also being a husband, a father, and a man both pleased and frustrated by what he must deal with in life.  The film begins with a nice moment of Dr. King rehearsing his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and putting on one of his ties, only to be helped by his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).  The two face more impactful moments later in the film, with a spotlight that could easily be placed on a scene delving into possible infidelities, but it’s a simple start to keep us focused on Dr. King as a man and not the towering figure that he could easily be depicted as. And, again, it’s a performance that could perhaps match the stature of the man being portrayed, but that risks not getting across what comes from within.

That was an issue in last year’s Mandela, where Idris Elba did a fine job in a story that was trying to encompass too much of a notable figure’s life into a single film.  Meanwhile, Selma is much more in line with Steven Spielberg’s superb Lincoln, which also had a tight focus on one specific time in the life of a tremendous figure and the backing of a great performance to really capture a version of the man in question, all while delivering on the aspects surrounding his character in that film’s story.

As I have been stating, this approach to the characters and the film as a whole is a big part of what makes me admire Selma, but there is more to speak to involving Selma’s importance today.  So often do we see historical dramas and biopics focused on events that had a cultural impact significant enough to be seen portrayed cinematically years later.  However, it is only so often that we see these films connect thematically or quite literally to the events of the time in which these films are released.  Without diving too explicitly into what is going on in the current American climate, a film such as Selma, which is focused on the passage of the Voting Rights Act and hostile force used against unarmed civilians participating in peaceful protest marches, has plenty of relevance in today’s current climate.

There may be some coincidence in the timeliness of the release of this film, although DuVernay has been working up until recently to finally finish the feature. Still, I would hardly say the film stumbles by featuring a closing song by John Legend and Common (who co-stars in a small role as James Bevel) that lays out some pretty clear thoughts on what has and is going on.  No, Selma did not have to be a film that matches up to the events of today. That said, the fact that it can both stand on its own as well as function as a reflection of where society is currently makes for a movie I can more readily invest in, as well as champion for being more than just an automatic awards contender, simply for being an MLK drama.

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To delve into the other aspects of the film, from a technical standpoint, Selma has plenty of other strengths.  You get a sense of the times thanks to the production and costume design, among other aspects.  Thanks to some excellent cinematography and crafty editing, the staging of certain scenes, particularly the marches, leads to impactful moments that do precisely what is required to convey what violent events that took place, without feeling exploitative.

Helping these aspects along in the film, even more, is the decision to really dial down the need for a tireless explanation of every event.  A quick prompt of the year and location is put on display, but Selma trusts its audience enough to not have to dictate every action taking place.  Add a simple, yet effective score by Jason Moran and Selma is a film that lasts for just over two hours and feels like a real accomplishment in nearly every respect.

There is a lot to appreciate in Selma.  It is well-acted and well-produced, making a big name for director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb, and a much bigger name for David Oyelowo, who has been rising in the ranks in recent years.  Plenty of credit goes to the supporting cast as well, particularly Tom Wilkinson, along with the whole crew behind this film. A fantastic film came from what must have been an amazing effort from a team of people who knew what they were getting into and wanted to get it right.  Selma was the result, and it is an extraordinary achievement.

Martin Luther King: The battle is in our hands.  And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summon us.  The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one.  There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions.  But we must keep going.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

2 Responses to “‘Selma’ Is Incredible, Inspiring, and Important (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Ah to live in paradise and be able to see this one.
    I’m jealous. I really really really wanted to see this and Inherent Vice before years end, but not even a press screening of both of these in my impoverished town until after the New Years. Boo. Heck! Foxcatcher just started playing here. Whenever they say Austin is the third coast for film, they are lying. Cleveland has more. But I digress.
    I’m glad this was awesome as I read through your review. The trailers looked so.
    I think it comes down to this and Snowpiercer for picture of the year huh? 😉 joking. Of course Boyhood will make a stand.

  2. Aaron Neuwirth

    There are a few films vying for the top spot. 😉

    Hope you enjoy Selma.

    I am not a robot.