Review – Selma


‘It’s not right’, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) says as he fiddles with an ascot tie, ahead of accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in the opening moments of Selma.  Never before have frustrations over a tie said so much about the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in America, and to an extent, the trepidation of transitioning a slice of King’s life to film (Selma is the most ambitious to date).  You can feel the trepidation of director, Ana DuVernay, and screenwriter, Paul Webb, bleed through in this scene as King and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), discuss the hardships facing black citizens in America and the indulgence of the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

DuVerney cuts from the prestige of Oslo to Birmingham, Alabama, to cement King’s fears when four girls are killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed by white supremacists.  The staging of the bombing is polarising and DuVernay allows the horror to echo in silence as fabric and flames form hellish imagery, drifting slowly across the frame, to ensure every moment of the tragedy is felt.

Finally, we arrive in Selma, Alabama, where Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is trying to register to vote but is rejected by a system stacked against her.  Approximately 15 minutes into Selma there’s an incredible amount of artistry in establishing the context of the situation, and despite the fact we know the outcome, DuVernay makes the ‘how’ a captivating journey that manages to buck the overly sentimental elements of historical dramas.

Following the bombing in Alabama, Selma tracks a three month period when King led a campaign to secure equal voting rights for black Americans.  King’s operation involves negotiations with President Lynden B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), sub-groups within the Civil Rights Moment (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and his closest advisers.  The campaign culminates in a series of protest marches from Selma to Montgomery in the face of harsh opposition.

Selma succeeds by staying in the moment and Webb’s focus on the events on 1964/65 spare the grandiose mess of tracking King’s entire life and the pitfalls of a traditional biopic – not a flashback in site.  The slow reveal is the Civil Rights Movement was driven by more than just one man.  The political jostling, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, shows the strategic steps King and his advisers took to instigate change.  King’s discussions with the President are akin to The West Wing, with LBJ acutely aware of the situation (aided by constant surveillance by intelligence agencies, highlighted by DuVurnay in reports that display on screen) but working to leverage the movement to put him in the best position within his own government and the nation.  Webb shows how King and his team navigate the obstacles in their way to aggravate decision makers into action with non-violent protests.  King’s team train protesters in how to handle physical threats from the police, they send people into the path of violence knowing the images will be seen by millions on the news, and they strategically pick Selma as the base of operations.  It’s a genius move by DuVernay, a former publicist, to be able to tell the story about a movement whose leaders knew how to get attention, with an emphasis on the weight of each action, its intention, the gains and losses.

What elevates Selma from the historical drama traps is DuVernay’s skill in making the story intimate.  King is a huge historical figure but in a scene where he’s is confronted by his wife for his infidelity, he’s presented as fallible.  In another scene where police clash with protesters, there’s a connection to every character involved in the melee, and each act of brutality towards these characters is frightening, like witnessing an act of violence against a family member. Dramatic license is taken a little, sure, it’s a movie, and everything should be explored beyond the film for the facts, but Selma is an exceptional starting point.  DuVernay even puts her characters in the company of other historical figures.  The rebellious trailblazers who came before King are always present; a small statue of Mahatma Gandhi sits on a table in King’s living room, LBJ and King debate between a portrait of George Washington, and the crucifix is always somewhere in the frame as a bastion of peace, but also, foreshadowing the martyrdom of King’s fate.  DuVernay doesn’t waste the opportunity to make a statement or examine the methods used by King to achieve his goals.  When you consider the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri (mentioned in the song Hope playing over the credits, the intention is definite), it’s hard not to think, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  When you dig into Selma it’s clear that DuVernay transcends the direct commentary of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement.  She highlights the incredible achievement of King but also unpacks the methods required to instigate change in a democracy and there’s a warning about the dangers of bureaucracy.

There’s not a weak spot in the cast, and the true testament to the ensemble is the impact the characters with barely any dialogue have on the entire film.  At the top end there’s Oyelowo who is all class as King; the speeches are stirring, the stare from those eyes shows a man calculating every move and there’s a tender nobility undercut by humility.  At the other end there’s Keith Stanfield, playing a young protester, who barely utters a word but his actions and reactions send shock-waves through the film in a huge way.

The highest compliment I can offer to Selma is how it will be remembered (or how I hope it will be remembered).  It’s the kind of film that should be used as a teaching aid to launch students, young and old, into conversations about the Civil Rights Movement, similar to the way 12 Years A Slave reignited the discussion about slavery.  These are important stories that need to be told and re-examined, in case the ugly side of humanity appears again, because it always does.  When you put these issues aside, Selma houses an astonishing story, told with grace, and I bow down to Queen DuVernay.


Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie