Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
Martin Luther King, Jr. has been one of the most influential names in the history. Raising an unequivocally clear voice against the oppression on freedom to be (for lack of a politically correct, racially unoffensive term) a “black American”, he became a fierce figure to be inspired by, spreading to the public around him the need for equality. His life has been honored in many different ways – one of them being to raise awareness of his life and death through the various documentaries created on him, time and again.
The problems with biographical films made on (or around) his life or his work were either their degenerative quality (Our Friend, Martin) or their rather generic, overdramatized tone (Selma, Lord, Selma). That the films were made solely for television weren’t really helping the cause of it all.
That is, until acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) bagged the role of director to Paul Webb’s screenplay based on Luther King, Jr.’s voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in the year 1965. There was now hope for a strong film on the man to be had.
Nobody, however, would have expected how strong.
What’s it About?
The film traces the life of King Jr. (David Oyelowo; Jack Reacher) – as much a human being with a family as a civil rights activist – and how his life unfurled to land up to the marches and the inglorious crimes committed before – and during – the peaceful protests.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Period dramas on personalities, fictitious or otherwise, are mostly, if not always, a slippery slope to conquer. Most of these biopics in particular have either turned up too indigestibly heavy handed (The Lady) or too cliche (Amelia). The need of the hour for this film thus, was to present Selma in a manner that was anything but manipulative. On some rather rare occasions, however, strikingly good things do happen to moviegoers wanting something fantastic out of a biographical drama they’re going into.
Selma is one of those good things.
Webb’s screenplay plates the political statements the movie so dexterously makes like they are. Couple that with DuVernay’s rather low-key, grounded direction through most of the scenes, and you get a spade being called a spade. Statements and events of disparaging racial inequality are shown pretty much through the narrative, but unlike a lot of movies to have conquered this, the movie ends up having a rather quiet voice – the kind of quiet that is painfully discomforting. The director and screenwriter fortunately seem to have had a strong, focussed tone about the way the film’s made.
The very fact that the audience is able to genuinely feel the burden of King Jr.’s responsibilities throughout the film, without all the emotional heavy-handedness the makers could have indulged in for the sake of conventional storytelling. And despite the usual biopic checklist items that are spread through the runtime of the film – the rather progressively annoying title-cards displaying FBI messages, the what-happens-after text by the end of the film – the movie is anything but a checklist movie. James Moran’s music refrains from being your usual cookie-cutter biopic score (cue Alexandre Desplat). Bradford Young’s (A Most Violent Year) cinematography plays around with frames and the production design of the film fairly engagingly. The symbolism through those frames is unfortunately not always subtle. There are some angles and some shot placement gimmicks one will definitely notice as either symbolic to a certain trope or a foreshadow to a certain future happening. The heavy-handedness, however, doesn’t affect much for how undeniably ravaging the emotion in the film is, pushed only forward by Spencer Averick’s edit, making full use of rhythm-heavy cuts and parallel edits to knit together the narrative and the action beautifully. Extensive L-Cuts are usually quieter than can have been, and affect the audience emotionally – a whole lot more than one’d have thought.
I’d have liked to state a lot more on the film than I have right now, but as a first time viewer, it would only be fair for the audience to wholly experience the film without the knowledge of a lot of happenings woven through it all.
To Perform or Not to Perform
David Oyelowo is easily not just the best performer in the film, but one of the best in any film 2014 has been graced with. Not just does he pull off the physical closeness to MLK, he is him, for all of the one hundred and twenty seven minutes of the film. Be it when he speaks softly on the obstacles he’s facing, or with extreme power to a larger audience, inspiring them to stand up for their rights, the audience will be hooked by how extraordinarily impactful his act through the film actually is. Carmen Ejogo (Away We Go) lends a worthwhile performance by King Jr.’s wife, effectively tackling a lot of scenes that effectively underscore the tumultuous personal life the real Coretta Scott King may have had as a wife and mother. Tom Wilkinson (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is perfect for LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson). His nuanced performance and – yet again, after Oyelowo – his physical closeness to the real life character source give a certain authenticity to the proceedings. It’s a great pleasure to witness Giovanni Ribisi (Ted) in a rather grounded performance after the host of recent comedies he’s appeared in. Oprah Winfrey, like Ribisi, has a relatively short role. The emotion she exhibits, however, through it all, manages to haunt through and through. Tim Roth does a fine job as George Wallace, making the audience hate him without being so inherently heavy handed with his performative dynamics. Keith Stanfield, who did a brilliant job with Short Term 12, doesn’t get to show much scope here – although that ultimately attributes itself with how far Jimmie Lee Jackson goes in the film. Jeremy Strong (The Judge) is another one who, despite his short presence, makes for an important few minutes he exists in the movie. Tessa Thompson (television’s Veronica Mars) doesn’t get to do a lot. Others – ranging from Cuba Gooding Jr. to Dylan Baker – are present at different times and places, and each mostly has an important role to handle.
Despite some iffy technical and narrative decisions made in the film that don’t possibly work out, Selma still ends up being an inherently powerful – and by the term, I earnestly mean powerful – account of an important chapter in the life of King Jr. Consisting of a powerhouse act by Oyelowo, the film is as emotionally ravaging as it is a timely commentary that makes you ask yourself: what’s really changed in this world today?
The answer you get, however, might not be a pretty one. It might not.
Star Rating: 4.5 / 5