Starting as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is being awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and ending with a small victory on the way to attempting to secure African American equality, Selma examines only a very short period in the life of a legend. King’s non-violent activism has already been established before the film begins and his assassination at the age of 39 is merely a footnote. Selma, as its title suggests, is the story of just one of many struggles in King’s life. When it becomes clear that African Americans are not being allowed to vote in many Southern states (despite this being against the law), King and his colleagues head to Selma, Alabama, a place where ‘whites only’ signs are still visible, and organises a march from Selma to Montgomery to ensure every black person is allowed to vote without being refused or intimidated.
Hounded by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, hindered by President Johnson, and attacked by outraged white people and Southern law enforcement, King must overcome divisions within his own movement, and outright racism from many locals in order to succeed.
Selma is not a traditional biopic, in that most of King’s life is left out of the film. Don’t expect to learn much about why King developed his strict code of non-violent protest or what achievements led him to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Selma focuses in on one moment in his life and is all the better for it. There are hints and mentions of what came before and what will come after, but this is the story of Selma and the people who put their lives at risk to gain the right to vote. Most notably, Selma enacts the night of the death of one activist on the streets of Selma in tragically true detail, where Jimmie Lee Jackson was unarmed and shot by police.
The timing of Selma, and its snub in the Academy Awards acting categories, couldn’t be more pertinent. This is a film that many might want to ignore. The police brutality, the fear of African Americans (particularly from those in power and law enforcement) and the desire to protest their own treatment all feels ripped from recent headlines. For all King’s sacrifices, victories and righteousness, America still has a lot of work to do in terms of race relations and Selma shines a light on this by looking into its recent past.
The decision to concentrate on this pivotal moment is smart; with King’s life having too much to fit into a single film. It touches on the troubled relationship with his wife and Malcolm X briefly pops up for a single scene, but mostly it deals with King, his colleagues and the ordinary people of Selma. The fantastic Brits in the cast - David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth - stand out in this none more American tale but as with so many true life stories, it is the moments where we see real footage that really hit the hardest.
Despite King's speeches having to be rewritten for the film due to rights issues, Oyelowo captures the essence of the man beautifully. With so much left of King’s life to cover, we can only hope that director Ava DuVernay, writer Paul Webb and star David Oyelowo are given another opportunity to shine a spotlight on this great leader in the future.
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Reviews for other Best Picture Nominees 2015: