Selma is a pivotal film – one that records a vital moment in American history and the importance of a movement. A film that has particular cultural significance and relevance given recent events in this country, and a story that serves as a reminder of how far we have come as a society, while also whispering just how far we have yet to go.
Somehow (and I don’t get it), this is the first theatrical film we have seen based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The fact that he has been portrayed in minor roles in hundreds of films and has been the subject of television movies, yet has not yet been the subject of a feature himself, is baffling. But now that it is finally here, it is a brilliant piece, and one that you should be viewing as soon as humanly possible.
The approach taken by writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay doesn’t span the entirety of King’s life as is typical in biopics. Instead, they wisely choose to hone in on one very specific event – the march in Selma, Alabama, to protest the unfair and unreasonable voting restrictions that kept Black residents away from the polls and unable to exercise their constitutional right to cast their vote.
The approach is fantastic, allowing the audience ample opportunity to understand the character, persona and historical importance of MLK and other pivotal leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but not going so broad so as spread itself too thin and take away from the impact of the story itself.
One of the things that really makes Selma shine is the way it takes Martin Luther King, Jr., a monumental historical figure, and humanizes him. Not by making his deeds and contributions less important or by tearing him down, but by letting the audience see him as a man, rather than as a legend. We see his fear, his doubt and his sadness. We see him facing impossible odds and working the situation to the best of his ability, understanding that he didn’t have all the answers, much like anyone would.
David Oyelowo is stunning in this role, giving King all of the grandeur and energy that we have come to know him for, lighting up a room and engaging his audience with his powerful and compelling powers of speech. But Oyelowo also imbibes him quiet moments where, though there might not be much dialogue, we get a small window into his soul and his humanity. The rest of the cast is equally incredible, with great performances Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce and Keith Stanfield.
The thing that really struck me when watching Selma was the fact that watching this film gave the events more of a realistic, relative place in history for me. Which isn’t to say I was unaware of them, but more that the film gave them a greater sense of context. Like all of us, I grew up learning about Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement and all of the good that those brave men and women did. But it always felt as if they had transpired long ago. Though the events of the Movement were only about 25 years old, give or take, they, along with King seemed much bigger than something that could possibly be that recent. But because I was a kid, and these were events that I had not seen myself, in a time and place completely foreign to me, it seemed much much farther away. It didn’t seem as relatable. It didn’t seem as real. It was a chapter in my history text book, and could very well have happened 100 years ago, rather than 20-something or even 30-something.
Watching Selma, I was astonished as it finally dawned on me just how recent these changes were made. Which isn’t to say that the events of the Movement or the people involved were forgotten – just that by the time that I was learning about them, they had already grown impossibly big.
Selma gives them a grounded context, but also a humanizing factor, reminding the audience just how recent and important these events were, and that their ripples are still being felt today. Specifically when coupled with the too recent memory of the events in Ferguson, in New York, and across the country. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others are reminders that, as far as we have come from the 1960s, the fight isn’t yet over.
It is impossible to watch Selma and not overlay the events of recent months, and that is a good thing. Though the events depicted in the film are historical, they are still completely relevant. Watching the crowds scatter in the film under the overly-forceful weight of an angry police mob, you immediately call to mind the Ferguson footage that you were watching on the Internet just months ago. Selma serves as a beautiful portrayal of a great man and the important, life-changing work that he and his colleagues did to make the world better for thousands, and reminds us that the job is not yet done. It is a beautiful film that informs, educates and speaks.