It took close to half a century to get a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. made. One of the most influential men in the history on our world, whose words have been immortalized and whose name is attached to a national holiday in the United States. A Nobel Prize winner. Quite often, biopics of such people become epic portrayals of the subjects entire life and achievements. Sometimes they focus on a critical juncture of segment of the persons life. A man like Martin Luther King Jr. has an endless number of such moments or junctures, but after 50 long years director Ava DuVernay has managed to bring one such juncture to life, arguably the most important of his career. The incredible march from Selma to Montgomery.
Bringing such a prominent and distinctive figure to life has many challenges. Especially when that figure was so controversial, and his life is filled with government and FBI interventions. The first step was decide what aspect of Dr King’s life and work to focus on. It becomes clear as the film goes on that the choice to focus on a particular aspect of the civil rights movement was a wise one. This is a film with a very clear point to emphasize and a very particular story to tell. It gets much Dr. King’s past out of the way quickly, and then through conversation throughout. The drama at Selma was some of the most challenging, brutal and heartbreaking of King’s struggle, and perhaps the most influential in getting government support for their cause. Ava DuVernay hits all the key beats and hits them well. The emotional impact of many scenes is maximized by fantastic direction, and it is contrasted beautifully by plenty of smaller, more personal moments. It is these small moments that reveal a lot about the characters, and humanize all the larger than life characters.
A film about such a man of course rides on the back of it’s leading actor. David Oyelowo was the man chosen for the challenge. It was obvious from early images of the film that he had the appearance nailed, as it is quite remarkable how much he looks like his subject, but his performance is much, much more than that. Oyelowo literally carries this film on his shoulders. It’s one of the most remarkable biopic performances I’ve seen quite frankly, and I think it’s one of the most clear injustices committed by the Academy in my lifetime that he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor. I was initially skeptical because I hate the idea of just giving an award to someone because of who they are playing. It’s an acting award, not a peace prize. So there was no bias here. But this was a performance that not only should have been nominated, but would be hard pressed not to win. The appearance and mannerisms are flawless. The speeches are an integral part of King’s story, and Oyelowo delivers them with conviction and power. He is a complex character, and a flawed character torn between his cause and the guilt he feels towards his families and the people who are harmed as a result. This kind of complexity is really difficult to bring to life, and King is a character that could easily become a cartoon if played poorly. That’s far from the case here, and The Academy should be tried in front of a jury.
There are some other very strong performances here though. Too many to mention, to be honest. So many of King’s loyal followers and friends are brought to life with so much charisma despite limited screen time. His wife, Coretta Scott King in particular is played beautifully by Carmen Ejogo, and there is a convincing turn by Tom Wilkinson as politically torn president Lyndon B. Johnson. There are so many characters with huge parts to play and somehow they all manage to get developed well, doing most of them justice. If there was a misstep it might be with the violent, racist police chief, Wilson Baker and his goons, who are played a little too cartoony, their constant scowls and looks of evil are a little too much. These were certainly evil men, but the fact is human beings are almost always complex, and the lack of any complexity with these men whatsoever hurt their credibility a little.
The cinematography is also beautiful in the film, and a variety of techniques are used throughout. There are some incredibly striking visual moments, particularly some of the horrific acts of violence, which are done in a very convincing fashion and which really hit you hard emotionally. The scene depicting the infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ on the bridge during the first Montgomery march is a truly remarkable one, and is stark in the violence it depicts. It’s almost rhythmic, and lulls you into a horrified daze. But despite the films most saddening moments, it is ultimately a movie about an inspirational man and story, and the film is certainly inspirational. The triumphs are realized wonderfully, as are the horrors. King’s powerful speeches remind us that the fight must go on, and we prepare ourselves to see the next battle take place.
Selma is an incredible movie. It could well be the best film this year, and it contains an incredible performance at it’s heart, for which David Oyelowo was not rewarded by the Academy. He should take solace in the face that he brought to life a man who perhaps nobody else on earth ever could have, and he did it remarkably. Selma is a movie that will likely make you smile and cry, sometimes at the same time, and will also allow many people to see past the ‘I have a dream speech’ to what is perhaps a more influential and important moment in Dr. King’s life. It’s emotionally draining, but endlessly worth it.