Awards and nominations are not important. Forget them. What matters is the film itself; its message and our reaction to it. I say this to quickly dismiss the main story surrounding Selma and its lack of nominations at the Academy Awards. While the conversation regarding diversity, both in gender and race, in the current film industry is one that needs to happen, it all stems from the deeper message of equality – borne in the Civil Rights Act and depicted through the Alabama protest marches in Selma.
The title of the film combined with the poster provides an interesting quandary that will surely, for better or worse, affect the way an audience appreciates it. Selma is the name of the town and it became associated with the protest marches that took place there in 1965, but just as with the poster, the presence of Dr. King looms large in the retelling of those events. But Selma is not a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, at least not in the truest sense of the word. Its focus is on the key battle in the fight for equal voting rights but it still cannot avoid looking at the man who the movement looked to as its recognisable leader.
Fortunate then that in David Oyelowo the film finds an actor at possibly the height of his powers, able to embody the passion and righteous energy that seemed to flow through Martin Luther King Jr. Even though Oyelowo is not given to the method acting techniques that have proved effective for others depicting historical figures, he disappears into the role entirely, nailing the signature diction in a way that feels richly authentic. Whenever he is on screen, his performance draws the eye and we hang on his every word in the way his supporters did. The scenes where King addresses assembled crowds capture the vibrancy and stirring nature of his oratory, not in word-for-word accuracy but packed with the same emotional punch nonetheless.
The grandeur of these speeches, entirely justified in their crowded settings, becomes less justified and more incongruous when it bleeds into the more ordinary exchanges between various members of the movement. After a while, everyone seems prone to giving mini-proclamations about hope, truth, and so on, and this unfortunately takes something away from the words that are projected from the lecterns. Speaking about Dr. King, director Ava DuVernay has talked of the desire when making Selma to “try to portray him as an ordinary man who did great things” and this is certainly achieved to some extent, particularly in small scenes of his home life. But while Oyelowo’s performance is mercurial – the pain and burden of responsibility etched onto his face – his relationships are never fleshed out enough to give us more than a glimpse behind the curtain. We see him as the weary leader, the stirring orator, and the calculating tactician, and yet there’s still something not accounted for.
All the supporting players, from Coretta King to Malcolm X to LBJ are represented but are a bit shallow in their characterisation. They all seem to be slightly underwritten, and even though the actors make the most of what they’ve been given, the depths of their characters remain unexplored e.g. Tim Roth is all racial hatred and nothing else. It’s a small gripe to be sure, but one that if addressed might have given the film another layer to carry the weight of its message.
As mentioned before however, to heap the success or failure of the film entirely onto Oyelowo’s shoulders would not be true to its focus, and it’s here that DuVernay’s firm directorial hand is most apparent as we are taken step-by-step through the protest marches. This methodical approach keeps the film on track, and the steady pace allows the tension to build in a very natural way so that when the pivotal moments occur you can never fail to feel what is at stake here. DuVernay exhibits a commitment to the retelling that means she never stylizes events to the point where they lose their impact. The scenes of brutality – given an added discomforting edge due to events in Ferguson last year – are shocking but never gratuitous, and really hit home when considered today.
Despite its flaws, Selma is at its most powerful when seen as a marker of the progress of racial equality, especially at the time of its release which sadly adds even more poignancy than anticipated. The efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others in the Civil Rights Movement show that great strides have been accomplished and while the final goal is still a way off, it can be achieved. Selma understands this and reminds us of it with its final scene which is filled with hope. It’s not the greatest film of our time but it is important and it will not fail to move you. The collective awards may not have recognised it as much as it deserves, but Selma deserves to be recognised by as wide an audience as possible.