Powerful performances illuminate this triumphant true story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s extraordinary battle to grant black Americans their constitutional right to vote.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Review by Corey Hogan
Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of only three people in American history to have a federal holiday established in his honour. A remarkably intelligent and compassionate man, his years of activism, and tireless efforts in obtaining civil rights for all people, regardless of race, have become legend. As another MLK Day passes, we are reminded on the 50th anniversary of one of his greatest achievements with the release of Ava DuVernay’s dynamic historical drama Selma.
With a Nobel Peace Prize under his belt for advancing civil rights through nonviolent means, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) believes his work against racial prejudice has just begun. Denied by President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) legislation for black citizens to vote, King travels to Selma, Alabama with his group of Christian activists, and hatches a plan to form a protest march to the state capital Montgomery as a means for black American citizens to express their desire for the right to vote. Threatening this is Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), who vows to stop the marches by utilising violent state troopers, and racist white citizens. Meanwhile, his home life with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) begins to crumble in the wake of his activism.
Smartly, Selma is not a biopic chronicling everything from King’s early life to his assassination. Such an approach would undermine the milestones of a man with so many achievements, à la 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Instead the film is structured much like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, focusing purely on the three invigorating months that led to King securing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Interestingly, the films are set almost exactly one hundred years part, and deal with very similar subject matter.
David Oyelowo, a devout Christian, stated in an interview that he believes God called upon him to play Martin Luther King, Jr. Even non-believers will have a difficult time debating this after witnessing the actor ignite the screen. Oyelowo inhabits the part like a second skin. From his powerful, commanding voice to his subtle body movements; he delivers each mighty speech in a manner perfectly matched with King’s. It genuinely feels as though we are spectating the great leader himself as every thundering monologue resonates as exhilaratingly as when first orated fifty years ago. It is difficult to believe that Oyelowo has been overlooked by major awards ceremonies given his astonishing commitment to the role, though while he may not bring home a golden statue, he undoubtedly emerges a star with a very bright future.
While Oyelowo commands the screen, the rest of the cast are also very impressive. Tom Wilkinson shines in his controversial performance as President Johnson; a man torn between granting the coloured folk the right to vote, and racial pressure from political peers. His motives may have been slightly fabricated to better serve the story, but Wilkinson remains collected and as reliable as ever. Carmen Ejogo too is granted a chance to step into the spotlight as King’s wife, particularly in a scene where Martin Luther’s loyalty to her is tested by assailants framing an affair.
Selma has been overshadowed at this year’s awards by more favourable contenders, earning just a single Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song). Perhaps arriving too soon after last year’s guilt inducing 12 Years a Slave, Selma could easily have nabbed nominations for cinematography, costume and set design on top of the powerhouse actors well deserving of awards recognition. Nonetheless, Selma remains an important film to be embraced – history lessons are rarely this impeccably acted and beautifully made. Four stars.