Film Colman Domingo David Oyelowo André Holland Stephan James

Published on January 27th, 2015 | by Jody Ball

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Review: Selma

Release Date: February 6

Selma is a small town in Alabama, where American eyes were drawn to in the spring of 1965. It was the strategic site of a battle, a historic march for voting rights, and a bitter but long-awaited victory for Martin Luther King in his ongoing fight for democratic equality.

It isn’t necessarily a film I would have gone out of my way to see, but I was glad I did. Being a 20 something I didn’t really know the story of Selma, I am ashamed to say the only thing I really knew about King was his ‘I have a dream’ speech. This film is set just after his dream victory and focuses on segregation in the voting sense.

It is a flat-out great film with a complex and contested flashpoint. It’s the place where progress might be made, by non-violently inciting white-on-black aggression and getting people across the country to switch on their TVs.

Today, audiences who think back to the rousing “This, now!” speeches in Spielberg’s Lincoln may recognise a comparison in this script of impassioned speechmaking and political manoeuvring.

David Oyelowo who plays Martin Luther King has never given a better performance. He seems to penetrate into King’s soul. He’s tremendous. When electrifying his congregation at the podium, his version of King seems constantly braced for setbacks, haunted by the daily inevitability of his mission’s failure.

The issue at hand is the black vote – legally guaranteed by the Constitution, but practically thwarted by all the literacy tests and intentionally obstructive registration rules local government had managed to pile up in its path. In the early Sixties, more than half of Selma’s citizens were black, but only 1% were registered to vote.

 

Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper is turned away at the film’s start for failing to name Alabama County’s 67 judges. And because registration was a requirement to serve on juries, black people had no say in their own trials, and brutality against them went unavenged by the justice system time and again.

Ava DuVernay, previously responsible for the little-seen features I Will Follow (2011) and the Oyelowo-starring Middle of Nowhere (2012), makes a thrilling surge into the front ranks of American filmmakers here. She’s likely to be the first black woman ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar (but I wouldn’t hold your breath).

The film doesn’t try to span King’s life. Unlike so many films about the civil rights movement (To Kill A Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Cry Freedom) Selma isn’t told from the perspective of an honourable white person who in some way saves the day.

It isn’t going to be recognised as much as it should, but it is well worth the watch if you’re looking for a film to concentrate and learn from.

By Jody Ball

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