“Selma” stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. as he and other civil rights leaders head the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in an attempt to get equal voting rights for African Americans. Oprah, Common and Tom Wilkinson also star as Ava DuVernay directs.
David Oyelowo, aside from being “that guy with the confusing last name” (it’s pronounced “oh-yellow-oh”, for future reference) has been in many films in supporting roles but has never been known as a leading man. He appeared in “The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, and then ironically was in 2013’s “The Butler” where is character interacted with Martin Luther King, but “Selma” marks the first time he has had to carry all the weight, and he proves that he is the one of the better actors in Hollywood.
“Selma” is as solid as it is because of Oyelowo’s gripping portrayal of MLK Jr. He looks like King, rocking the slow southern accent and signature mustache, but he also shows the emotional toll that King’s life had on him. Whether it be holding back tears talking to the relatives of a deceased or the problems with his wife on the home front, Oyelowo needed to evoke multiple emotions for the role and he nails it.
The rest of the supporting cast all do solid work as well, particularly Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson and Henry G. Sanders as an elderly protestor. Wilkinson portrays the frustration LBJ had when trying to balance racial equality and the War on Poverty, while Sanders shares probably “Selma”’s most tender and human scene with Oyelowo when they discuss the loss of a protestor.
DuVernay’s direction for the most part is capable, however there are times that she chooses to play it safe and opt for the standard biopic path. There is one scene where King is in the car with a protestor and the young man starts to tell King about a speech of his he attended that motivated him to become part of the movement. As he continues to talk and starts to fight back tears, the score picks up, just to make sure you know that the scene is meant to be emotional.
The riot and police brutality scenes are pretty violent and sometimes hard to watch, but that’s the point. It is mindboggling to think that this type of thing happened in our country at all, much less only 50 years ago, but “Selma” reminds us that unjust brutality was a hardship that both whites and blacks who fought for equal rights did indeed face.
My only problem with the scenes of protests is that every one of them featured people getting tackled in slow motion, with the high-pitched screeching sounds in the background and close-ups of people getting tackled to the ground in first person view. This didn’t work for me, not just because it was standard dramatic riot shots, but because there are other shots in the movie that are creative and work well, such as showing the size of the marches from sweeping aerial shots.
“Selma” isn’t telling a little-known tale of an unsung hero like “The Imitation Game” did, but it features a fantastic performance from David Oyelowo and serves as a powerful reminder for how far we’ve come as a nation, yet how distant we are from achieving the full scope of Martin Luther King Jr’s dream.
Critics Rating: 8/10