Although African Americans had the right to vote in 1965, their access to the voting register, especially in the Southern states, was often denied on the most spurious of grounds. That changed after the Civil Rights Movement marched successfully in March 1965 from Selma to the State Capitol in Montgomery.
Astonishingly, this is the first movie to concentrate on the particularities of King’s personality and will set a benchmark for anything that follows. DuVernay’s choice of Selma as a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement allows her to bring together the forces that spoke truth to power, with Wilkinson toughing it out as President Johnson at the top of the pyramid. At grassroots level, Oyelowo has plenty of time to develop the reflective wisdom and rousing oratory skills that were essential for King’s successes. Long discussions on strategy and the individual’s role in all power structures provide a handle on the historical dynamics of non-violent protest and its brutal subjugation. But for all its balance and careful composition, minor weaknesses (a devoted, lingering camera and inconsistent gospel-meets-Mantovani soundtrack) remain to remind us that icons tend to resist anti-canonical deconstruction – not a bad thing in itself, but one to remember.
Selma | Directed by Ava DuVernay (USA 2014) with David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson. Starts February 19
Originally published in issue #135, February 2015