After all the fervour around Oscar snubs and the whiteout of the Academy Awards, I finally got round to watching Selma. Sure, I’m a little late to the party on this one, but anyway, let’s get on with it.
Selma is the story of the three month struggle by Martin Luther King Jr. (played here by David Oyelowo) to march from the towns of Selma to Montgomery so that African Americans would be able to register to vote. The film details King’s inner circle of followers and how then US President Lyndon B Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) is trying to barter with MLK over civil rights.
Selma for me is a film of two halves. After a startling introduction, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls, Selma settles into a very slow pace as it introduces its main characters, to the point where I almost nodded off due to their being nothing on screen that made me invested. However, that all turns around the halfway mark, where Selma’s pace and brutality are ratcheted up high, delivering a powerful and moving ending.
To start off with, Oyelowo’s portrayal of MLK is stunning, to the point where it should have at least been nominated for Best Actor. A biopic about an important historical figure always hinges on said portrayal, and Oyelowo perfectly encapsulates all of MLK’s determination and passion and performs his speeches with vigour, to the point where you believe that the spoken word were from MLK speeches, rather than original writing due to the actual speeches being copyrighted. Tom Wilkinson also gives a good turn in as Johnson, even if his scenes are few and far between. Tim Roth as well, who gives Gov. Wallace a healthy dose of sliminess, a trait Roth has pulled off before in films such as Arbitrage. (On a side note, I find it quite amusing how all three are British actors playing iconic American roles). We also get some new faces such as Stephan James, who play’s John Lewis, giving gravitas to some of the darker scenes that appear in the middle of the film. However, the film has some big names in supporting roles, such as Giovanni Ribisi, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oprah Winfrey, which for me is a fault of the film. While all of those mentioned are seasoned actors, I found it hard to keep concentration when one turns up, as I felt like I was being pulled out of the experience since it is clear that it is Martin Sheen or Gooding Jr. and not a character in the film.
Violence plays a large part in the film, with Selma really pushing is 12 certification. While we don’t actually see any punishing, brutal beatings, the direction and sound design left little to the imagination, to the point where I started comparing it to The Raid 2, arguably one of the most visceral films in recent memory. The film also earns its certification through its use of racial slurs and foul language, and while the former can be attributed to the time period and setting of the film, the latter really does not add much to the scenes that it features in, it probably should have been left out.
There are several other things for the film that also should have been omitted, mainly certain scenes, due to the lengthy runtime, being just over two hours long. One scene that springs to mind is a conversation between MLK and his wife Coretta detailing whether he has been faithful to her or not. I understand the inclusion of this scene, as they want to show MLK as a character that has flaws. In contrast, the film Fruitvale Station, another film that deals with race issues, was criticised for having its main character not be flawed in some way, yet in Selma the topic is never heard from again and doesn’t move the story along, so it seems a bit redundant to have it appear in the film. The only other problem I have with Selma is it glosses over many of the facts of the actual three month story. Very much like 2012’s Hitchcock, important figures like Malcolm X and Fred Gray are introduced but aren’t expanded upon or only stay for one or two scenes, meaning that important facts in the story are glossed over.
In summary, Selma is a film that has its flaws, yet the story it produces to us is powerful and meaningful, with small post-scripts next to the major players within the story, detailing their eventual careers or shocking early demises, along with actual footage of the Selma March. The film is then topped off with John Legend’s Glory playing over the credits, with is the perfect send off to a film which finally finds its feet.
Score: 7/10, An essential watch, but it is let down by poor pacing and weak story elements.