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Selma—Movie Review

Martin Luther King - David Oyelowo-680

Selma gets it right in the very first scene: we meet Martin Luther King not on a speaker’s platform, in a church, or on a march. He is fumbling to get dressed in a fancy suit with an ascot and complaining about it to his patient wife, Coretta. (The reason for donning this uncharacteristic outfit: to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.) That is how screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay introduce us to the legendary figure at the center of their film, not as a plaster saint but as an ordinary man.

The beauty and brilliance of Selma is how the filmmakers humanize every aspect of their story, refusing to make it a historical pageant. David Oyelowo’s performance is crucial in achieving this goal: he is as believable in a quiet domestic scene as he is in his most majestic moments, rallying his people with a galvanizing speech. We see King in his various roles as leader, negotiator, mediator, and husband. 

DuVernay has proved herself with a pair of well-received indie films but she, too, rises to the occasion with this re-creation of recent American history. Both the flavor and the details of the 1960s are vividly evoked in moments large and small. If you’re old enough to remember the key moments (and players) in the Civil Rights movement, as I am, I think you’ll be impressed. Judicious use of news footage from the period confirms the solidity of DuVernay’s dramatic staging of those incidents.

Selma-Tom Wilkinson

Selma reminds us that history is shaped by a variety of factors including debate, conflict, decision-making, and happenstance. It’s the humanity of the people involved that create the fabric of history, from a hard-driving politician like L.B.J. to a sympathetic white priest from the North who feels impelled to join the headline-making march down South.

I’m not sure why British actors make such good screen Southerners, but Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo (as Coretta Scott King), Tom Wilkinson (as L.B.J.), and Tim Roth (as Alabama governor George Wallace) deliver perfectly persuasive performances along with their talented costars. The film rests largely on Oyelowo’s shoulders and he is simply superb; in his speech and in his bearing, he is Dr. King.

Selma builds to an emotional crescendo that brought me to tears. I don’t remember another biographical drama having the same effect on me—but then, there aren’t many stories as potent as this one. 

8 comments

  1. Jeffrey says:

    Mr. Maltin’s statement that this film brought him to tears leaves me somewhat mystified. This film isn’t all that distinct from other dramas that have been released in recent years. The magnitude of praise that this film has received from Mr. Maltin and the overwhelming majority of critics as a whole is incongruous and perplexing.

  2. Christopher A Brown says:

    Four stars out of four stars in my opinion.

  3. Keith says:

    Selma is intensely powerful and moving while also being frustrating. Many dismiss the complaints about LBJ’s portrayal but I think it does weaken the film. Historical liberties are taken in most biopics but this one seems so weird and motivated by something other than dramatic effect. I really liked Selma but at times it had me questioning its intentions.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    This film is not as incandescent as so many people have claimed. But it evidently resonates with a large audience and its release strikes a chord. In fact, this film could stage a major upset in the race for Best Picture.

  5. Rev. Gil Caldwell says:

    My two sons and I celebrated Christmas and my wife’s 80th birthday (I am 81) by attending SELMA at the AMC Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem. I was present in Selma for the Tuesday following "Bloody Sunday" and I returned to present a check to Harry Belafonte from the Massachusetts Unit of SCLC, on the Saturday night before we marched into Montgomery. My responses to the film; Powerful, a reminder of how for some, "Black Lives (did not) Matter" to so many persons then and now, the power of nonviolence in Selma and an essential today, and Oprah Winfrey’s role in the film, in the minds of some was to add celebrity, but in my mind and spirit, it symbolized how no matter how powerful we become, identity and solidarity with those who are not powerful, is "As American as apple pie". "Whenever you refused to help one of the least important ones, you refused to help me."
    Matthew 25; 45. There is a lesson in the role Oprah Winfrey played, that ought be emulated nationwide.

    I wish we in Asbury Park, N.J. could have some showings of the film, followed by discussions in a multiplicity of venues.

  6. Dominique says:

    The film was a beautiful and soulful portrayal of what went down in Selma all those years ago. Loved Oyelowo and Wilkinson’s performances but the entire ensemble brought this story to life as well. It shook me to my core and moved me to tears which would not have been possible without the talented filmmakers and cast involved. Definitely the most important and relevant film I’ve seen all year. Gigantic step forward for Black Hollywood.

  7. Chris says:

    The movie is ok. The theme itself is important but the film is meh

  8. Rosie says:

    British actors do not make great Southerners. They’re just cheaper to hire.

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