Selma is one of the newest additions to the season of a whole lot of biopics. We’ve got a depiction of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, John du Pont and Dave and Mark Schultz in Foxcatcher, Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner, Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Margaret Keane in Big Eyes, and now we’ve got one about the great Martin Luther King Jr. Have I missed one? Oh, probably. It’s hard to say what makes a biopic a good one. Sometimes the facts get muddled or are sacrificed in the name of good drama, sometimes these real human beings’ lives don’t shine on screen as much as you think they should. Sometimes you go in, and you don’t come out all the wiser. But, regardless, stories like these should resonate with us, they should linger in our minds long after we’ve left the theater. It is not to my dismay that a lot of these movies, while not perfect, succeed at this, and Selma is no exception.
Ava DuVernay and first time screenwriter Paul Webb tackle a short time period within Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) life in 1965 when he struggles to get a bill passed that will abolish voting rights restrictions, and tries to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to demonstrate how serious the issue is, especially after a young black man is shot during a peaceful protest. Lives are lost during this struggle, but King’s persistence and faith is unwavering. Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is hell bent on not allowing blacks to vote in his state, regardless of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and he’s not the only one. The marchers are often faced with whites standing in their way of taking advantage of their rights. King, however, will not stop until President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) does something about it, and it’s a powerful sight to see so many people of different races stand behind him. These events eventually lead to the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enforces blacks’ rights to vote.
One of the things I can appreciate about this movie is that it doesn’t put Martin Luther King up on an unreachable pedestal. He, like anyone else, was a human being. Human beings do great things and they also make mistakes. It highlights his infidelities as a husband, which also directly leads to him missing out on the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where 500 protestors were attacked by an Alabama state police force. He stayed home instead in order to try and work out his issues with Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). It also shows him as a man who struggles with decisions to figure out the right ways to lead the people towards effective change in a nonviolent way. He has to not only try to convince the President to take action, but he also finds himself clashing with some of the members from the SNCC, who were also intent on helping blacks to be able to register to vote. He also faces some backlash when he leads the march back to the same bridge, and turns them around when the state troopers step aside. It’s clear that he doesn’t always know what the answer is, and he feels the pressure as a leader to achieve what he set out to, despite the injuries and deaths that are occurring in the wake of it all.
I also find it impressive that DuVernay and Webb had to write their own speeches for Martin Luther King, because they didn’t have the rights to the real speeches. So even though you’re not going to hear snippets from the famous “I have a dream…” or anything similar, the character is still just as powerful and inspiring despite this.
The only problem I had with this film is the under usage of some of its characters. Coretta, for example, is the one person who is there to remind you that above all else, King was a husband and a father, and an imperfect one at that, but a man worth loving nonetheless. She keeps his character grounded, but she’s hardly ever on the screen. She has a few great moments, specifically when she asks him whether or not he loved any of the other women he’s been with, but afterwards, she just fades into the background for much of the story, which is a shame, because Carmen Ejogo has an electrifying on screen presence.
Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) has a great opening scene, where she tries to register to vote but is denied upon being asked a few ridiculous questions no other white voters would probably even know the answers to. She has another scene where she hits the Selma sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), and is repeatedly beaten for it. Other than that, Winfrey doesn’t have much of a part, despite the trailers advertising her star power.
I think a lot of the supporting cast, aside from Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace, is unfortunately forgettable. Even Common, I have to admit, I had to remind myself who he was playing because I couldn’t remember (he played James Bevel, an important civil rights activist and director of direct action at the SCLC). There aren’t too many characters who really stand out from the rest, but the film still succeeds in the solidarity of the characters and what we see on screen as a group of people working towards the same goal.
Some of the scenes in this film are hard to watch, specifically the Bloody Sunday scene, among others. It doesn’t feel as though they were put there just for shock value, though, as these things actually did happen in 1965, and yeah, they shocked the world back then, too. I feel like they’re necessary to not only retell history, but to further the story and act as the catalyst for change, which it definitely was. It’s also no surprise that King and the rest of the activists essentially used the media to gather people from all over the country to stand behind them and help them further the cause, it was just as strong an influence back then as it is now.
It was a good decision to focus on just one small part of the man’s life, as anything more would seem less inspired and more of a checklist of events. DuVernay does a decent job with this skillful crafting of MLK, a man who was more human than anything else, and Oyelowo brings him to life with an impressive performance. It’s about time there was a good movie about MLK, and even though many of the characters don’t have enough moments to shine on their own, the story that is told is still one worth telling, the events are still powerful, and the message is still relevant.