But as its powerful message of race, creed and brotherhood builds and builds throughout the movie, you can feel another energy at work: the power, it would seem, of God.
Selma makes it clear that Martin Luther King Jr, played by David Oyelowo, the film’s protagonist and a flawed – but brilliant – human being, is a man driven by God. An ex-pastor, his positive doctrines of forgiveness and pacifism in place of violence are all based on the values and lessons he had collected through his faith in a higher being – in this case, the one portrayed in the Christian Bible.
This faith rarely trembles, even during the film’s most unsettling and disheartening periods of King’s struggle against the powers that govern Selma, a town still rife with racism despite the civil liberties act. Although his documented – and portrayed, in this film – act of committing adultery taint his otherwise saintly persona, King comes across as someone who may not have gotten as far without his religion.
Which is where we come to David Oyelowo, the actor. Oyelowo has mentioned in numerous interviews of his faith in Christianity. In effect, he has an advantage; assumingly, he won’t have to ‘act’ as much in that aspect of King’s life. Does this aid his performance? During scenes where King is visibly empowered by his belief, usually during speeches, how much of that is Oyelowo acting as King, and how much is pure Oyelowo?
‘I’m realistic, but when I first read the ‘Selma’ script, I had this deep-seated spiritual knowing that I was going to play this role. God told me I would.’ This is a quote from an interview Oyelowo did with Indiewire, in which the British actor described that God spoke to him back in 2007 – when he moved from the UK to Los Angeles in order to give his showbiz career a boost. Does Oyelowo’s belief in God drive him to be as good an actor as he is? Is the critical buzz he’s getting for the role essentially sourced from it?
Perhaps. What actor, or artist, isn’t driven by an inner force? It may usually take the form of a critical voice in your head; in Oyelowo’s conviction, it is something bigger than him. Whether God is real or not, it is to this actor – and we can readily see the results on the screen, in what has to be one of the year’s greatest performances.