Gripping and powerful, this drama doesn't pull punches in presenting the history of racism, still relevant in this day and age.
The history of the civil rights movement in the United States is frequently watered down and more often than not told through the lens of white guilt, especially in Hollywood since the entertainment industry tends to cater to a white majority. As such, it's no surprise that a film like the Academy Award-nominated Selma has shaken up the masses. Selma is a story about black people fighting for their rights, but unlike the usual film about slavery, black disenfranchisement or other forms of anti-black oppression, it doesn't use a white narrator or any handholding to make viewers feel better about themselves. Put simply, Selma doesn't pull punches, which easily makes it a winner.
The year is 1964, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) goes to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his use of peaceful protest to enact changes. But many changes are still to be made, evidenced by the death of four young black girls in a church attack incited by racial prejudice. In Selma, Alabama -- the setting of the film -- Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote, but the white registrar prevents her by questioning her knowledge of the government and implicitly whether she even deserves the right to vote.
Dr. King, aware of the growing tension between blacks and whites and the need for black Americans to have the right to vote unencumbered, goes to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to ask for help. However, the President shoots down his request in favor of other "more important" projects. Unwavering in his goal, King goes to Selma with Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) where they join forces with James Bevel (Common) and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activists to make a statement. While they gather a lot of support, there is still considerable opposition from the SNCC.
Back in D.C., infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believes that King remains a threat despite his nonviolent approach and suggests disrupting his marriage. The suggestion isn't necessary though as tension between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) has already grown as she is unsure about his decision to go to Selma. Despite the disagreement, King and the rest of the SCLC group continue with their plans. They know that they need the President's attention, and they're counting on the bigoted sheriff Jim Clark and governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) to respond aggressively, even violently, to get it.
What makes Selma so successful is its tone. It isn't a lecture or a chastisement, even in this time when its discussion of racism is relevant in the face of the issue of police brutality, but rather it simply tells a story -- one of power, human struggle and oppression. It presents the ideals for which King and other civil rights activists of that era reached, standing as a silent but powerful reminder of how much work is still left to be done.
By no means is Selma a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the film is anchored by David Oyelowo's performance. Oyelowo is utterly compelling, bringing the highs and lows of King to the forefront. Everything from the way he speaks to the way he carries himself builds the picture of who King was, but at the same time Oyelowo never outshines the performances of others. The film's ability to move from the story of one person to that of another without losing nuance is the power behind its punch. This is not the story of one person suffering. This is the story of a people suffering and triumphing, crying and rejoicing, and the film uses a subtle hand to surprise, captivate and move audiences.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.