You can be certain that we are well and truly in awards season when the cinema listings are full of films that are best described as worthy. Chief among this type of offering is the biography of a historically important figure. Already we have had versions of the lives of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Vera Britten in Testament Of Youth and Stephen Hawkins in The Theory Of Everything. The latest is Selma, concerning a crucial period in the life of Martin Luther King.
At the time the film is set, in 1965, King is already an established international figure for his work within the civil rights movement. The movie opens with him receiving the Nobel prize for peace. This is intercut with the murder of four young girls as an explosion rips through a church in Selma, Alabama. This is the catalyst for the next stage of King’s campaign for voting rights for blacks in the southern states. Even though legislation had been passed to allow everyone to register to vote, certain states had used their powers to render it as difficult as possible for people to actually attain this right. Selma is regarded as the perfect place for King and his organisation to take a stand. A march from there to the state capital of Montgomery is planned which will lead to direct and potentially bloody confrontation with the local authorities.
Surprisingly this is the first studio film to explore Martin Luthor King’s life. Other projects have been noted over the years, including a Steven Spielberg produced biography, but to date Selma is the only one to make it to the screen. The film benefits from the focus on a particular period of King’s life rather than taking the well worn approach of a n overview of his life. It treats the audience with a bit of respect in that they know who the King was and what he stood for. It doesn’t fall into the trap of presenting the legend rather than the man. King is portrayed as being very human. Throughout the film he is filled with self doubt and at times fear of what he is doing. Not only for himself but those around him. There is consistently a concern that his methods, including the need for peaceful protest will have disastrous consequences.
For the film to carry any sort of weight the main role has to be just right. David Oyelowo is superb in the role. His performance is not a mere impersonation of the man. He takes the public image and makes him a believable character which doesn’t shy away from his flaws. His extra-marital affairs and his relationship with his wife are touched on when it would have been easy for them to just be ignored. His skills as an orator are also shown in the public appearances he makes. The rhetoric is powerfully translated to the screen and it came as a surprise to learn the speeches were not in fact the words of Doctor King. The rights, for filming purposes, are held by the aforementioned Mr Spielberg.
What we are given is a charismatic man who can lead and inspire those around him. Behind this is a thinker and planner. When King and his inner circle are discussing the plans for the march is presented like a general making strategic maneuvers. It shows that there was thought and a great deal of planning involved.
There has been criticism of the way in which Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has been portrayed in the film. Critics argue that he played a much stronger role in backing King’s initiatives than is noted in the film and had no part in the ordering of surveillance of the civil rights activists. What the film makers have done is to place a distinct emphasis on one side of the story. Johnson, and by association the government, is shown as seeking to use the civil rights movement for their own ends by backing King in the hope that he will back them.
The supporting characters, especially Tim Roth as the governor of Alabama are not presented as mere caricatures. The complexities of Southern politics are explored through his personality. On one hand, he is shown as being a politician who has spent his career fighting for the poor and on the other a flat out racist. It would be just too easy to paint them with broad strokes but the film is not about that. It highlights the struggles but recognises that there were a number of factors involved.
The dramatic highlight of the film is the depiction of the first attempt at the march where the law men and white locals impose their will on the hundreds of people trying to cross the bridge on the way out of town. The violence inflicted on the people is horrific and the film does not shy away from showing this. Inter-cut with the film is actual news footage captured on the day that became referred to as Bloody Sunday. It is a stunningly effective piece of film making.
Overall, a dramatic and tense recreation of a pivotal point in the life of a major beloved figure from the twentieth century. Highly recommended.