Set in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is determined for President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to make it possible for black people to exercise their right to vote in the Southern states of America. As the powers that be hesitate over a decision, King sets off to Alabama to protest – inciting his followers to demonstrate without violence, but ensure that enough of a stir is caused that the press will get a hold of the story and put pressure on the White House. However just because King is taking a non-violent approach, it’s not a sentiment shared by the white police officers patrolling the streets.
DuVernay has presented an intimate, subtle and honest depiction of King – not portraying the venerable Nobel Peace Prize winner as a saint, but as a human being. He’s exhausted, fatigued, scared – he’s like us. Of course he achieved an incredible amount and was an inspiration to millions, and still is, but Selma portrays him as a real person, which makes his accomplishments even more remarkable. Much credit must go to screenwriter Paul Webb too, as considering how eloquent, profound and compendious King’s words were, this does justice to the wordsmith and his legacy, remaining naturalistic throughout.
Talking of doing justice to King, Oyelowo turns in a stunning performance, and one that is so nuanced and idiosyncratic. This actor is a real gem, and a leading light for British cinema, which, coincidentally, makes up much of this cast – as Wilkinson also shines as the President, with another supporting role for Tim Roth as the detestable George Wallace. Meanwhile, the soundtrack perfectly compliments the production, indicative of the era, and in particular, of black culture, with a myriad of soul, gospel and blues numbers – while there’s also a cover version of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, and though not the original, the lyrics remain as piercing and profound.
Selma is a remarkable feature, it’s poignant, it’s rousing and it’s immensely captivating. But, sadly, it’s challenging to feel truly inspired, as while this film celebrates such a landmark moment in the fight for equality, an overwhelming sense of futility lingers, as with the current climate and troubles in America between the black community and the law enforcement, it doesn’t feel like too much has truly changed, and those same, inherent issues are as pertinent as ever. Though in some ways, it enriches the tale, allowing the viewer, albeit with great regret, to place this story in a contemporary world and contextualise it accordingly. The outcome; a simply outstanding piece of cinema.