A solid but unexceptional film, it’s hard to know whether Selma would have as much impact were it not for the spate of racially-motivated tragedies and ensuing protests that have sullied the United States in recent months. By coincidence, the civil rights movie comes out at a time when any progress in the last fifty years seems to be retreating, and there will be no cinema-goer whose eyes are not reopened by some of the horrors on screen.
There have been surprisingly few cinematic renderings of Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, but despite the lack of competition, British actor David Oyelowo’s embodiment of the great man is simply superb. He nails the slightly drawling tone, the facial nuances and exudes physical presence as surely King did as he quietly incited millions of Americans to follow him on his journey to racial equality. Oyelowo’s Oscar snub is surprising – perhaps voters felt it would be cliché to reward an actor for playing a hero. Whatever the reason, especially as a foreigner in Hollywood, his performance is a highlight.
Supported by some rather-too-famous faces (Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer, is prominent though predictably good; Brits Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth blast away as Lyndon B. Johnson and Governor George Wallace, respectively), Selma focuses on one stretch of King’s expedition to freedom: the equal voting rights march between Selma and Montgomery in racially-segregated Alabama.
It is these scenes of peaceful protest which set the screen on fire – director Ava DuVernay builds tension well and the pacing is strong. However, some viewers may find the rest of the film rather talky by comparison, and while the White House-bound performances are engaging by dint of Wilkinson and Oyelowo’s natural chemistry, the overarching story leaves you feeling somewhat lacking.