Selma runs the risk of being two immediate things and those things would cripple the film’s impact and longevity, which would, in turn, make it go down as a film of huge ambition but a disappointing execution.

The film could’ve been a film that would pander to one’s emotions, working for nothing but the unnatural emotional manipulation of the viewer by emphasizing key scenes and soft orchestration to create an artificial emotion, or the film could’ve bitten off more than it could chew, choosing to expand on the checkered life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that would be too broad to be substantive. Alas, it is neither, and Selma is a film with a focus, a steady-hand, and emotion that stems from the brutal, realistic depiction of the violence and unrest that occurred in the streets of America during the tumultuous time of the Civil Rights Movement.

by Steve Pulaski

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in a stunningly convincing performance, all the more because Oyelowo isn’t a household name at this time and his appearance isn’t distracting because of his own popularity. Selma focuses on King’s struggle to assemble peaceful protests across the southernmost states of the United States, the most hardened region in Jim Crow laws and most outspoken and venomous in their racism, in 1964, particularly the famous march in Selma, Alabama, despite strong, incorruptible opposition from the Selma government. During the course of the film, we see numerous instances we’ve come to read about in our social studies books, such as the 16th Street Baptist School bombing, the fiery speeches of King, and the beatings and abuse unleashed on African Americans with heart-wrenching realism. In addition, we get extended detail on the relationship King had with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) during the time of the protests, with President Johnson supporting his cause but also claiming to have dozens of other issues on his plate, causing dissent between the two on the significance of the civil rights agenda.

Directed by
Ava DuVernay
David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Release Date
9 January 2015
Steve’s Grade: A-

Oyelowo gives us a powerful Martin Luther King, Jr., one intensely memorable for his sermons and the conviction of his speeches. Oyelowo and writer Paul Webb don’t seem to believe in giving us an empty, heroic Martin Luther King, Jr., but one who was frequently indecisive in his decision making and unsure of his ability to impact at times. During the opening scene of the film, we see King with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) with King second guessing the way he is dressing and presenting himself, fearing critics will refer to him as something of an “Uncle Tom” or someone who is compromising the potential impact of the protests and the pleas for equality. Oyelowo works the best when he’s given complete and total control of the scene in such settings spacious rallies or the tight-knight four walls of a church, where his voice can be heard in echoes and his message unburdened by the likes of an obvious score elbowing its way into the mix.

With that, Selma keeps its realism in check, never delivering its hard-hitting material in a predictably light manner. Unlike films that would sugarcoat scenes of brutality during marches or protests, directress Ava DuVernay shows precisely the kind of treatment the protestors of the Civil Rights Movement were met with. Stifling blows to the head with clubs, the innocent and the mannered being met with blunt force the equivalent as if they were violent criminals, and senseless killings are all portrayed with the true heartbreaking qualities such situations inherently possess. It is during these scenes that Selma becomes an unexpectedly frightening but revealing motion picture, the kind we perhaps quietly thought would be subjected to minimalism and soft depictions of a hard reality the film instead embraces and emphasizes with every passing scene.

The hard-hitting qualities of Selma will undoubtedly catch viewers by surprise, but it’s a debatably necessary move. The Civil Rights Movement was always the constant in my social studies classes up until the middle of my high school career, when one had the liberty to branch out to other fields such as sociology and macroeconomics. The frequent discussion of not only that particular time in history but other heavily discussed events like World War II and the Vietnam War made me feel as if I knew everything there was to know about such events. However, the more I see film depictions, both documentary and fictitious, the more I realize I understood ideas and not the magnitude of such events.

Selma puts an end to the ideas and gives us visualizations and depictions we need to associate the Civil Rights Movement with; clearly, its makers have had enough generalizing and simply want to show things as they likely happened, showcasing a cast of extremely talented individuals at the forefront. In two big ways is Selma one of the most subversive Hollywood films in years. For one, A-list actors are placed about as far back in the background as they could be, with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Oprah Winfrey assuming very minor roles and Martin Sheen even taking an uncredited one as a judge late in the film. The second reason for Selma’s uniqueness is its lack of a central Caucasian character, which has come to be a humble point of acceptance in Hollywood biopics and historical films, even the ones where minorities were the main figures. Selma takes a lot of risks for a mainstream production, and it’s rare to see them pay off as well as they do here, making this a film full of originality and surprise for a story we’ve hold many times before.