It may be largely famous right now for its snub at the Oscars (though it was nominated for Best Picture), but I’m quite sure Selma will have a long life independent of that particular over-rated awards ceremony. For after all it covers one of the important stories of the US civil rights movement — Martin Luther King’s leadership of a voting rights rally in racially-polarised Alabama, and a march from the town of Selma to nearby Montgomery, the state’s capital — one that until now has largely been the preserve of documentaries, but one that still resonates even today (the rap over the closing credits draws direct parallels to events in Ferguson and other racially-motivated murders of black people). Its tone and style are still very respectful as one might expect — there aren’t a great deal of laughs here (you’d hardly expect any) — though everywhere the filmmakers are keen to try and stress the characters’ essential humanity, often occluded by hagiographic portraits of the period. There’s a lovely scene early on of King (David Oyelowo) being helped to tie his ascot by his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and the film later alludes to his womanising. The closest the film comes to caricature is with the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover (surely understandable), and though Tom Wilkinson’s President Johnson sometimes seems set up as the natural antagonist to the civil rights movement, in fact he eventually comes round to accepting its aims and enshrining them in law (if this character arc seems a little too neatly fitted, then it’s also the one that’s caused the most controversy around the film). The filmmaking style is restrained and the dialogue scenes can sometimes seem stagy (I imagine this material would work well as a play), but you get the sense that its aim is not to overwhelm with auteurist style but to testify to the extraordinary characters involved in rally and march, and certainly it’s the faces and the acting which are to the fore. Particularly strong is David Oyelowo in the central role, and his background on the stage no doubt helped him convince as a man renowned for his natural charisma and oratorical skills; Oyelowo can certainly hold the attention of a room (or indeed a cinema). The film may at times feel didactic (and will no doubt be an important educational resource) but thanks to its talented cast and crew — including the excellent cinematographer Bradford Young, and its director Ava DuVernay — Selma is also a fine piece of cinema.
Director Ava DuVernay; Writer Paul Webb; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Wednesday 11 February 2015.