Directed by Ava DuVernay
“Selma” has more cultural relevance than its filmmakers likely could have imagined, but even its most emotionally gripping moments fail to resonate like they should. Chronicling (with how much accuracy has been the subject of debate and controversy) King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to non-violently protest the stifling of the black vote, “Selma” focuses on a specific time in King’s 13-year civil rights fight – one that doesn’t get the same attention as his other protests and speeches. But the film’s script, from 60-year old British teacher, communication specialist, and playwright Paul Webb, fails to capitalize on even the most intense parts of King’s story. Unfortunately, his script seems only to push the plot forward. Dialogue is well-delivered by Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo (as King), but remains realistic and…well…plain. No Hollywood flourishes, for the most part. You can praise that if you want, but when accuracy is on the line (critics claim “Selma” greatly embellishes the relationship between King and President Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson), realistic dialogue shouldn’t be the main concern. If you’re going to use your creative license, why not use it to your advantage?
In my opinion, Oyelowo didn’t earn himself a spot amongst the Oscar nominees for Best Actor (nor did he earn the Golden Globe nomination he received). But Oyelowo does show the vulnerable, human side of King. His humor along with his flaws. He does very well. Brits playing Southerners is not uncommon, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Tom Wilkinson, though not a mirror image by any means, does nail LBJ’s posture and mannerisms. Tim Roth does well enough as Alabama governor and civil rights opponent George Wallace – he has a face that’s easy enough to hate, anyway. And though producer Oprah Winfrey’s on-screen role, as activist Annie Lee Cooper, is minor, she proves once more why she’s one of the greatest actresses working today. A national treasure. “Selma” didn’t have any major acting problems, as far as I’m concerned. The cast has their heart in it, as they should. The story deserves to be told, and these men and women try to do the story justice and give their namesakes life once more. But what they were working with was unfortunately flawed.
Music was an important piece of the civil rights movement, and “Glory,” the Golden Globe-nominated track from John Legen and Common (who also stars as one of King’s closest followers) follows in that tradition. It’s a beautiful refrain. “Selma” uses other music, too, to heighten the tension of its most intense moments. That, along with its gorgeous cinematography, does help the film’s emotional moments become more powerful than they could have been. But still not as powerful as they should have been.