It’s easy to underestimate the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You read about him in textbooks and maybe had a few lessons in grade school about what he did, but I find myself often forgetting about all that he did when it came to racial issues. Perhaps it’s because, not being from America, those issues don’t really come up in day-to-day life. We recognize that King did a lot in his time, but never really grasp its significance.
Selma is not a Martin Luther King biopic. It simply isn’t. It’s about a period in time in his life, and he is the protagonist, but it is not, and never aims to be, a biopic. Instead, it wants to detail the series of marches that were held in 1965 that were primarily about voting rights for black Americans. We follow King (David Oyelowo) for several months as he tries to do what he can to give blacks equal rights within America. In doing so, he meets with the President, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), is opposed by Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), and encounters a few other struggles along the way, not the least of which being the violent and racist way by which his opposition often opposes him and the movement.
It’s an inspirational tale and since it hasn’t been mishandled by director Ava DuVernay and first-time screenwriter Paul Webb, it is also an inspirational movie. Thanks to a few real-life events that happened prior to its release, it also comes across as timely, reminding us (read: Americans) how far we still need to come in the quest for equality.
Thanks to the topic of the film, it’s going to feel important. It’s been told as a serious drama that shows us some behind-the-scenes aspects to King’s campaign, and also reminds us of some of the horrible that happened as a result of what he did. People were beaten; some were killed. Selma is, at times, surprisingly violent. Yes, it intends to shock you, because what happened was horrible and shocking. It’s not an excessive film, but it shows what is necessary in order to achieve the intended result.
I felt like a better movie about Martin Luther King could have been made, but it would be tough to do a better one about this specific period and cause. King is presented to us broadly, not with a whole lot of significant depth, but then the film isn’t about him. I mean, he begins the film having already garnered the Nobel Peace Prize. we’re shown how dedicated he is to this cause — which involves him doing some things that the textbooks don’t really cover, because he’s presented more “safely” in those than in the movie — we get to see lots of the actions taken by everyone involved, and we’re made to feel emotionally stirred as a result. It is not a Martin Luther King biopic, and while more depth given to the protagonist would have made a better film, what we got is still very good and well worth seeing.
It’s anchored by David Oyelowo, a British actor you may not have heard of who turns in career-best work as Martin Luther King. He captures King’s charisma and vocal prowess, and tries to deliver to us more depth than the screenplay provides thanks to his mannerisms.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast turns in strong, but not quite as noticeable, work. Carmen Ejogo is strong as King’s wife, Coretta, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth are kind of slimy white people in positions of power, Martin Sheen gets a distracting role because it’s Martin Sheen randomly showing up, Oprah Winfrey is great as Annie Lee Cooper, and good performances are even turned in by Common and Cuba Gooding Jr.
A topical and worthwhile movie focused more on the events — the 1965 marches about racial equality — than the people involved, Selma is an inspirational movie based on a true story that rips away some of the mystique surrounding Martin Luther King and turns him into a man like any other. He’s not given a lot of depth, but this isn’t a biopic; it’s about the events that transpired, the actions people in power took, and about making the audience feel what it was like to be around for it. You’ll think back on that time and also relate it to things that happen nowadays. It’ll make you feel, think, and care. Selma, while not perfect, is a very fine movie.