D: Ava DuVernay. DP: Bradford Young. W: Paul Webb. Starring: David Oyelowo/Carmen Ejogo/Tom Wilkinson/Tim Roth/Stephan James/André Holland/Giovanni Ribisi/Lorraine Toussaint/Common/Dylan Baker/Trai Byers/Oprah Winfrey.
Produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo films and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, Selma has a lot of weight and history behind it. Originally a Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) project, Selma found its way and its footing with exceptional grace. Poignantly relevant still today, the film follows Dr. Martin Luther King’s campaign and eventual protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans in 1965.
Structurally Selma stays focused on a specific time period of King’s life that revolves around this march. This feels fresh as the film abandons the attempted scope of a traditional biopic, especially as audiences know so much about King already. There is an excellent balance between the macro effects of King’s efforts in Selma and the micro details of his life in this moment. This dichotomy is even visualized by notes that appear on screen as they were logged in by the FBI who were bugging the SCLC. Not only is this a reminder of the watchful eye on his organization, but how much of life can be compacted and translated into mere sentences.
Director Ava DuVernay builds an engrossing film from first to last frame. Opening with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, DuVernay immediately grounds Selma in the exploration of grief, loss, and human empathy. Cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) creates a fantastic mise en scéne and the use of slow motion is brilliant. The first sequence across the bridge is unforgettable, especially as the use of music throughout the film only compliments the sounds we are already given. Ultimately, what DuVernay gives audiences is a film that is not rushed or too trimmed. Moments linger, actors and their character’s pain is allowed to breathe.
Having previously worked with DuVerney on 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, British Nigerian actor David Oyelowo roots Selma beautifully. Oyelowo’s King is tense, controlled, yet complex. Playing historical figures, ones so tragically iconic to a cause that is still relevant today, can only be a heavy burden. Yet Oyelowo weaves many facets of a man into a performance as complicated as the hero himself. He is coupled well with fellow British Nigerian Carmen Ejogo, who is used sympathetically and deliberately throughout the film. Tom Wilkinson is also in fantastic form as Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth will make your skill crawl as bigoted Alabama governor George Wallace. Canadian newcomer Stephan James holds his own as well. Ultimately, Selma should not be missed. End of story.