There’s something to be said for perfect timing. Would Selma be one of the best movies of the year if it had released in January? Yes. But coming out now makes it a true masterpiece of its time. As we try to wrap our heads around Eric Garner and Ferguson here comes a movie about one of the most pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. It is a film for our times and given the times it will leave you floored the second the credits roll.
It is also exactly how you should make a “bio pic.” A slice in time, not a checkbox of a person’s life. This is a film that captures Martin Luther King Jr. by giving us a look at one instance and extrapolating from there. If it weren’t for the stunning achievement of Boyhood this would be the greatest film of the year.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Release Date: December 25, 2014
There isn’t a single moment of Selma that isn’t riveting. In 1965 MLK (David Oyelowo) led his activists to Selma, Alabama where he planned a march that would put President Johnson on the spot to pass the civil rights voting act. Accompanied by his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) he leads three marches as public awareness grows and opposition does as well. This is the story of Selma.
And yet the film captures so much more. Flitting around the edges of the march is the man. By focusing on this one act director Ava DuVernay allows the character of King to unfold. His troubled marriage and almost ruthless tactics to push civil rights to the forefront come through as the Selma unfolds. Unlike a bio pic this “moment pic” shows us who MLK was instead of telling us. It’s a smart move for a man almost the entire world knows the bullet points about. Instead of dragging us through the highlights that make the myth we instead see one highlight that defines who the man is.
It is impressive and brave how open the film is about MLK and his imperfections. We’re not just shown the orator here, but the politician, the husband, the preacher and the human being. It is a look at King that the textbooks don’t give us and his stirring speeches avoid. It’s also a look at the civil rights movement that doesn’t flinch from showing its flaws and its successes. Infighting and differing ideals give a far more human view of how things operated, and make it all the easier to apply the film’s story and lessons to modern day. It is an incredibly powerful moment — thanks much in part to the film’s release timing — when King’s work pays off, but it is the lesson in how he gets there that truly makes the film applicable today.
All of this would have fallen apart if it weren’t for Oyelowo’s transformative performance. A depth lies behind his portrayal of King that is rare to find in biography pictures. It doesn’t pander or imitate, but instead creates and defines. The best actors turn roles into their own and this is what Oyelowo has done here. It is a breakout performance that should skyrocket him to stardom despite the lack of comic book characters in the movie. Ejogo matches him note for note, though Oyelowo dominates the film’s run time, almost making it a one man show.
(Sidenote: Does Cuba Good Jr., who plays Fred Gray, have to be in every majority black cast film?)
That lack of pandering in Oyelowo’s performance resonates throughout the entire film. The fact that the splotches and faults are shown make the message all the more powerful. This isn’t a mythic telling of a story and because of that the story never loses any feeling of truth. Is it dramatized? Of course, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels powerful and important. DuVernay’s direction creates a stirring sea of momentum that caps off powerfully with Oyelowo delivering a stirring MLK speech.
It may be impossible to stand up directly after this film. I had to take multiple minutes just to process what had gone on as John Legend and Common’s powerful “Glory” played over the credits. Would it have this effect without the current protests going on? I’m not sure, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a film about a protest in 1965 is powerfully relevant to today and should be required viewing for the year.