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Selma (2014)

Josh Reviews Selma

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of several critical months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, leading up to the voting rights marches from Montgomery to Selma that took place March 7-25, 1965.

This is a powerhouse of a film, absolutely riveting.  The film wisely eschews the birth-to-death approach of a biopic, instead focusing just on one period of time during the life on its subject.  (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln recently used this approach, to similarly strong effect.)

The film is anchored by the staggeringly great performance of David Oyelowo as Dr. King.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Oyelowo ever since his great work, as a younger man, on the early seasons of Spooks (called M.I.5 here in the U.S.).  He’s had great supporting roles in a number of films in recent years, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  It’s thrilling to see him step into the big leagues with this performance.  Mr. Oyelowo is mesmerizing in the role.  He brings a level of honest humanity to this portrayal of Dr. King, a critical element in allowing the performance and the film to breathe, and to not feel like simply a worshipful paean to a legend.  At the same time, Mr. Oyelowo is able to capture every ounce of Dr. King’s charisma and his persuasive power.  Mr. Oyelowo delivers several speeches in the film, and they are all absolutely magnificent — most particularly the one that closes the film.

The film wastes no time, as it opens, in setting the stage for the story and conveying to the audience all that was at stake.  As we see Dr. King accept the Nobel Peace Prize, we also see an African American woman, Annie Lee Cooper, attempt to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, only to be denied by the white registrar of voters; and in Birmingham, Alabama, we see four children killed in the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church.  This film had its hooks in me right from those opening scenes, and it never let go right up through the end.

Selma is a period piece, but it feels rivetingly of the now.  This is not a dull, dry presentation of historical facts; the film is alive with a passion and an anger that is devastatingly powerful.  I have singled out Mr. Oyelowo for praise, deservedly so, but the entire ensemble is very strong, and the film is very well-crafted by director Ava DuVernay.  We get to know and care about a number of different characters, and we see the story unfold through their eyes as well as through those of Dr. King.

If the film has a weakness, it is … [continued]