Melanie Hall

Review: Selma "stunning from start to finish"

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Imbued with the ambition and fervent actioning of its protagonist, Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. circa 1965, in and around the time of the historic civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama.

The film, elegantly directed by Ava DuVernay, follows Martin Luther King Jr. portrayed by David Oyelowo, (Jack Reacher, The Butler), as King navigates a stormy three months of protest in 1965. He’s trying to arrange for, what would become, a historical march from Selma to Montgomery, protesting the prevention of black citizens from voting.

Selma is stunning, from start to finish, and not least of all because of its careful framing of King. It neither rushes to excuse his falls nor explains his methods, and though allegations of historical inaccuracy were called by some; like it or not, the film’s use of superimposed surveillance notes from FBI records lend a sense of credibility to what’s happening on-screen, though its depiction of King’s relationship with President Lyndon B.

Throughout the film Oyelowo is lost in his character, it’s a performance that is nothing short of brilliant, managing to capture the well-earned weariness and burning passion throughout.

Cinematographer Bradford Young’s photography is otherwise bold, blooming, and beautiful, providing further cinematography through the remarkable lighting to impose other elements of black history (he lights a jail cell to look like the tight quarters of a slave ship, with hard backlight and little fill).

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The exceptionally large cast turns in many remarkable performances. Tim Roth carries such presence as Alabama Governor George Wallace, musician Common steps up to the plate as civil rights strategist James Bevel, and Oyelowo is the clear standout as Dr. King.

Though the casting is so well put together, Selma stands apart from films of the same creed. Unlike Lincoln or The Imitation Game, this is not merely a vehicle for its main star to step into the shoes of a king-sized historical figure.

There’s not a single weak link in this cast; this is a movie made by the very demographic it portrays, and that is arguably why it’s so powerful. Carmen Ejogo is particularly fabulous in the role of Coretta Scott King, picking up where Oyelowo leaves off and completing the scope into their life and the movement.

In that intimate scope is where DuVernay finds her sweet spot. Selma is not as concerned with who King was in parable as it is with who King was as a man: more political, perhaps, than people give him credit for. More aware of the luxuries he didn’t feel he could indulge in. 

Selma also provides us with a great soundtrack to the film. Featuring Duane Eddy’s version of House of the Rising Sun, Odetta’s cover of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, and award winner for Best Original Song John Legend and Common’s, Glory.

Though falling short of some awards so far this year, this is a rare example of a film that can successfully exalt and ground a legend, but Selma walks the line with grace.

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