There are probably few challenges greater for an actor than portraying a figure as nationally recognized and discussed as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From the time most of us were in grade school, we have been made aware of the legendary face of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. From the videos of Dr. King’s speeches, National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. (which recreates the scene of his assassination), commemorative stamps and tributes on King holiday, he is as intertwined with the fabric of our culture as any figure not carrying the last name Roosevelt, Lincoln or Washington.
Consequently, the challenge of finding an actor to depict him was an important one. Fortunately, the new film Selma, which is based on the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., takes up this lofty challenge and nails it.
British actor David Oyelowo gives an amazing performance as Dr. King. He not only manages to embody King’s intonations, mannerisms, foibles and inner conflicts that inspired his work; but he also perfectly depicts King’s pragmatism in deciding the best methods available to achieve his goals during a time when the perceived rights of blacks were rarely acknowledged.
Oyelowo’s performance anchors the film, but it is not a biopic. In fact, the film depicts only the winter and spring of 1965 and the way that King’s message of non-violent protest was put to its greatest test. The film offers a historic glimpse at a time in history when racial tensions were at a fever pitch and a few dedicated activists took a stand to assure a better tomorrow for all of us.
Selma was directed by Ava DuVernay from a screenplay by Paul Webb. What the two accomplish here is impressive. Due to legal hassles regarding several of King’s speeches, including his most famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., DuVernay and Webb needed to re-write many excerpts from the orations.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the film as the reworked speeches manage to avoid the static monotony of speeches rendered verbatim, while at the same time, giving audiences a sense of the immediacy of the proceedings. We all know how historical record can sometimes be at odds with the memory of those present at an event of great importance. The film gives us the sense that we are taking part in these important moments in time.
However, despite Selma’s many noble virtues it does have its share of flaws.
The film is a bit too overstuffed with characters. The wonderful cast, which includes Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and the luminous Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash, is largely relegated to cameo appearances which hinders the dramatic attachment we feel for them.
There are also times where the film goes over-the-top for effect when simply showing the atrocities of the time would have been sufficient. For example, DuVernay’s questionable decision to highlight every violent act committed against the protesters with slow-motion of bodies flailing, mouths yelping and the soundtrack music wailing.
We get it. It was a tragic series of events that the marchers endured. Very few in the audience will disagree with this. Therefore, these types of melodramatics are unnecessary and belabor the point.
I also would have liked to have seen more of the political posturing taking place within the walls of Congress and the White House leading up to the adaption of the Voting Rights Act. The film has many scenes involving meetings with President Lyndon Johnson (Wilkinson) and other political figures like J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). But they are mostly for dialogue of them voicing their opposition to the movement. There is no serious discussion about how the bill got through Congress and what made the president acquiesce and sign it.
Nevertheless, the film is an important period piece surrounding a dark time in American history that needs to be remembered and Selma works on that level.
Given the protests that have ensued in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y. surrounding the deaths of unarmed black men, perhaps Selma is arriving at the exact right moment in time.