Review - Selma

Selma (2014), PG-13, 128 minutes - There are certain historical figures that society almost demands a certain level of quality from the finished product when a film is being made about their lives (or a portion thereof). Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of those figures, and Selma lives up to those lofty expectations.

Selma retells the story of the struggle for equal voting rights for African Americans in Alabama in 1965, specifically the organization of a non-violent march between Selma and the capital of Montgomery led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo). A law had previously been passed granting African Americans the right to vote, unfortunately, there was no legislation keeping local governments from blocking that right to vote for any number of completely arbitrary reasons. One such reason portrayed in the film was an African American woman trying to register to vote. She had completed all of the necessary paperwork, but when she submitted it, she was asked how many district court judges there were in the state of Alabama. After answering correctly, she was then asked to name them all. When she couldn't, her voter registration was denied. I don't know about you, but I know I wouldn't be able to provide that information today if I were asked the same thing.

King leads a small group of civil rights activists to the small town of Selma, AL to get a feel for the area and the community. He even discusses the lack of a true right to vote with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) directly. After the President doesn't seem very willing to push all-encompassing legislation, or even pressure then Governor of Alabama George Wallace (Tim Roth) to do so, King's group goes about organizing a peaceful march from the small town to the state house in Montgomery. Of course tension is high and things do not go that simply. There is initial push back and police brutality the first time the march is started. A short time later, on the second attempt, the police force makes way for the marchers but King turns the group around, fearing that it was a trap and the police would circle behind them and cut them off from the town before becoming violent. Eventually the group is granted safe passage and after arriving in Montgomery, King gives a speech about equality on the steps of the state house.

Oyelowo does an excellent job of portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., and I'm a little surprised that he did not earn an Oscar nomination for the role. On the other hand, the Best Actor category is loaded this year and I don't know who you'd have to cut in his place but the film itself was nominated in the Best Picture category. The rest of the cast of Selma is large, and of high quality. There are a number of familiar faces including Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee White), Common (James Bevel), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover), Wendell Pierce (Rev. Hosea Williams), and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Fred Gray). A smaller, but still very good performance is given by Carmen Ejogo who played Coretta Scott King.

Often times, the accuracy of the events portrayed in a historical biopic come into question. Andrew Young (played by André Holland) took part in the march, was close to King, and went on to become a U.S. Congressman and the Mayor of Atlanta. He has stated that the film got just about everything correct in re-enacting the events with the exception of the way President Johnson's relationship with King was shown. I feel that credit for historical accuracy (according to someone who experienced it) needs to be given to director Ava DuVernay as her vision drove the direction of the film.

I love films such as this as they give us a glimpse of our country's past - good or bad - and can really put events into context by using a visual medium as opposed to just reading about them in a book. Selma is a powerful, extremely well made film and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It starts with a jolt and has some disturbing scenes, but the story of the struggle for equality - in this case the uninhibited right to vote - is one that needs to be revisited from time to time.


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