Selma review

It’s telling that Selma is called just that and not instead King, or maybe MLK. This may be a film with the commanding presence of Dr. Martin Luther King at the centre, but it’s also about a very specific time in a very specific place.

By telling the story of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965, director Ava DuVernay – who also re-wrote Paul Webb‘s screenplay and, due to rights issues, had to create from scratch the speeches delivered by Dr. King – has successfully avoided a number of biopic cliches. Instead we have a layered portrait of King that provides vital insights into a very important period in modern US history.

DuVernay’s King is played by David Oyelowo, and his performance is nothing short of magnificent. We see King when he is exhibiting his power, his weaknesses, his grace and his flaws, and Oyelowo traverses every complexity and nuance in the character with ease. And this is all while never slipping into simple mimicry; the Martin Luther King of Selma is a fully realised human being, rather than a untouchable deity, cartoon or icon, and the film is all the better for it.

And we are very close to Dr. King throughout Selma, being emotionally engaged in what he is trying to achieve, and feeling his pain when he fails. And even still when he succeeds, with the price of his non-violent strategies revealed to be, very often, harsh and violent responses from racist white officials.

DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young do a good job of keeping us up close and personal with King in the intimate visuals. Their images also create a sense of proximity with those who march for and ultimately alongside Dr. King. This means that when violence does erupt, we’re in the thick of it.

In the first, interrupted attempt at a peaceful march, the camera moves with the protesters, even following them down as they are beaten to the ground. It’s hard to watch, and I was left not only wishing to look away but sometimes overcome with emotion. The filmmakers have done an astonishing job of pulling the viewers into the heart of their recreated scenes, and surrounding us with brutality whenever it boils over.

Some sequences don’t carry the same urgency despite their importance. Oyelowo is a powerful orator, but DuVernay sometimes looks for a little more than just the actors to carry the smaller, dialogue driven scenes. At times an unusual framing choice, a novel piece of blocking, some camera movement or cross-cutting choice is a welcome addition, but it seems perhaps that the filmmakers had only a few such tricks up their sleeve and then spent them rather too quickly. Thankfully, these issues don’t detract too much from the overall power of the experience.

Terribly, Selma is still immediately relevant. Perhaps the final scenes wrap up events with the institution of the Voting Rights Act just a little too neatly, but then the credits roll and Common and John Legend perform Glory, with its references to Ferguson providing a clear perspective on the long road ahead.

Selma is in UK cinemas now.