Film: Selma | Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Tim Roth, Martin Sheen | Rating: *****
Most biopics or retelling of famous instances of historical strife are slow. Maddeningly so. It’s almost a norm that if you’re making a movie that requires poring over pages and pages of research, you’re allowed to inflict some of that mind-numbing boredom on the people who pay to watch your film. Selma is the exception to the rule. With smart casting choices, an impeccably crisp script and a judicious use of the emotional content, Ava DuVernay’s reconstruction of the march that made a difference is a rare delight.
Even if you’re someone who only has a fleeting idea of who Martin Luther King Jr is and what he managed to achieve, this film will fill in those gaps left by your history teacher - without making you slip in your seat, or stifle a yawn. The movie begins with King and his wife, dressing for his Nobel Peace Prize felicitation. He grimaces at the dressy necktie that she’s picked out for him and says ‘It’s too much’. Now that’s a statement that you won’t ever have to use - even as you watch the Black men and women of Alabama being charged at on horseback, gunned down wantonly and just plain abusive (what eventually went down in television history as Black Sunday) - when they begin the march for equal voting rights.
King, played by David Oyelowo, and his band of brothers move to the town of Selma after unsuccessful civil rights movements in the then largely ‘Confederate’ South. After rousing the black congregation there with his unparalleled power of prose, King decides to stage the ambitious March from Selma to the capital of Alabama, Montgomery. The rest of the movie chronicles the ups and downs that the movement faced, before it eventually happened - and became the lynchpin for President Lyndon B Johnson (the inimitable Tom Wilkinson) to push Congress to pass path-breaking legislation that led to the breakdown of segregation. It’s remarkable that with a cast of as many British actors and familiar regulars from television, comes a performance this compellingly American, in spirit and slight.
Selma is brilliant not because it immortalises something that American government’s past would have hoped to live down, but because it gives you an insight into the kind of person King was, without sacrificing the story of the march. Unlike the common global perception, King isn’t shown as a Gandhian pushover or a minister who’s an easy target. He’s a shrewd man who plans, plots, lobbies and pushes the President into several tight corners. ‘We’ve got to do something so that we’re on the front page of every newspaper and on the TV,’ he tells his inner circle before the march. A minor reference is made to the many affairs that he has been slighted as having, while on the ‘path’. There’s even a point where he wants to throw the towel in, but holds out just long enough. King is a man, just like any other, until he gets beyond the podium. After that, it’s all history.
(Selma has not been theatrically released in India, but a special screening was hosted by the US Consulate General and SPI Cinemas. It is available on home video)