VOD film review: Selma
Ivan Radford | On 18, Jun 2015
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Wilkinson
Watch Selma online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
It is hard to think of an actor’s rise to stardom more satisfying than that of David Oyelowo. Ever since his impressive days in Spooks as MI5’s Danny Hunter, he’s appeared in countless quality productions, from The Last King of Scotland and Rise of the Planet of the Apes to The Help and Lincoln. Finally taking centre stage in Selma, he’s unrecognisable as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
His transformative turn is at the heart of Selma’s quietly impressive achievement: bringing the historical struggle for equal rights to life in a way that feels both engaging and topical.
It would be easy to dismiss Selma as yet another awards-hungry biopic, with its uplifting battle against the odds and opportunities for rousing oratories, but director Ava Duvernay avoids hagiography at every step. Far from white-washing the tale of King’s famous life, Selma brings out the small complexities of his contribution to the history books.
That starts with its focus, which is resolutely zoomed in on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights. It’s a welcome change of pace to the decade-spanning biopic tradition, giving Oyelowo more time to bring out the multiple sides to King’s personality that makes him so convincing. His relationship with his wife, Coretta (an excellent Ejogo), brings home the pressure placed on his marriage by his commitment to the cause, while behind-the-scenes glimpses of the overall process don’t shy away from the political cunning that went into King’s actions: the group’s protests were non-violent, but carefully timed to provoke as much of it as possible.
In private, he is firm, but fair, in meetings with Tom Wilkinson’s President Lyndon B. Johnson. In public, though, he is an inspiring speaker, a loud, powerful man of the people. Oyelowo’s delivery is uncannily accurate, but his rounded portrayal of King prevents his performance from being a mere imitation.
As difficult as it is to walk and talk like someone else, though, Selma’s success is far subtler than this year’s other crop of biopics, such as The Imitation Game and American Sniper, which were elevated by their leads: it stems from the script, which manages to recreate the way that King spoke, without ever using a single word of his speeches. In 2009, the rights to King’s life and speeches were sold to DreamWorks and Warner Bros for an as-yet unmade biopic, leaving writer Paul Webb to craft addresses that capture the cadences and rhetoric ability of King.
Webb’s carefully constructed dialogue separates King from Tim Roth’s Governor George Wallace, who staunchly opposes the right of black citizen’s to vote. Backed by Sheriff Jim Clark – who lands in a dust-up with Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper outside the Dallas County courthouse – he’s an odious presence, complete with slicked hair and a hooked nose.
Wallace and Johnson’s own discussions, meanwhile, give even more dimensions to the democratic tussle – a fight that caused unrest within both sides of the camp. The weight of the politics involved (shot by Ava with an unforced intimacy – compare it to Spielberg’s more noticeable helming of Lincoln) makes Selma feels fiercely relevant today, something underscored by the excellent closing song, Glory. In the background, DuVernay uses music throughout to gently accentuate the period accuracy, with songs such as Keep On Pushing heard on car radios contrasting with silent moments of shocking violence.
The production culminates in a rallying cry from King, as Oyelowo bellows his timely message with real conviction. It’s a career-defining triumph for the former Spooks star. The best thing about it is you’ve already forgotten it’s him.