Director: Ava DuVernay
Major Players: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth
Out Of Five: Four
This year’s Oscar nominations resurrected the debate about diversity in Hollywood. After a triumphant 12 Years A Slave, it seemed the Academy went into reverse this year, with white nominees across the board for all the acting awards, as well as Best Director. Selma, released in the UK this week, caused an outcry after only scoring nods in the Best Picture and Best Original Song categories.
The film traces events, and one march in particular, in 1965. It was the height of the civil rights campaign to give the black community the right to vote – in practise, as well as in theory, as only 2% of black people in the south were actually able to cast their vote. Events culminated with a march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, with Martin Luther King at the helm. The first attempt ended on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, with a vicious attack on the marchers by state troopers and police. A second attempt saw the march take place peacefully with King making a speech outside the governor’s building in Montgomery – the governor being segregationist George Wallace.
The director originally slated for Selma was Lee Daniels. He, of course, was behind The Butler, which was viewed at the time as Oscar bait but made little or no impact. The fact that David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King, campaigned for Ava DuVernay to take over in the director’s chair has done much to make Selma the film it is. Her documentary background and perspective from a different generation – she was born in 1972, well after the events on screen – give her a certain detachment, yet her passionate commitment is very much on show.
The film’s historical accuracy has already been questioned – just like any other historical film. But, as far as the story on the screen is concerned, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) eventually caves in and grants a new law to make voting a reality for the black community as a result of a meeting with Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), of all people. Wallace wasn’t going to back down, Johnson couldn’t let the situation deteriorate any further, so was only one course of action. Wilkinson, Hollywood’s favourite elder Brit statesman, makes a good LBJ: he definitely has the stature, although his mouth is probably a touch cleaner than the one belonging to the real president – reputedly. I wasn’t so taken with Tim Roth’s Wallace, though, a one note performance, conveying little more than slyness. A shame that DuVernay couldn’t draft in Gary Sinise to repeat his impressive performance in the TV bio-pic about the governor’s life.
David Oyelowo’s absence from the Best Actor list at the Oscars is the snub that’s really raised eyebrows and voices. He’s seriously good as King, with all the presence, charisma and magnetism to galvanise people into following his non-violent approach. But, away from the crowds, we see his other side. The weakness for other women which nearly destroys his marriage and the crises of confidence – at one point he is on the brink of giving up the fight altogether. It’s a well-rounded portrait and one that marks him out as an actor to watch – repeatedly.
The set pieces, especially those involving racist violence, pull no punches whatsoever and nod in the direction of Steve McQueen. They’re brutal and distressing and the first one, the blowing up of a church killing four little girls, comes as a real shock. It’s a moment that constantly lingers just under the surface of the entire film. The movie has a certain freshness as well, mainly because its new and young director has introduced some equally new faces to the cast. And this means the overall tone is respectful and aware of the story’s historical significance, but it never slips into sentiment or being over-reverential.
Du Vernay has made a smart choice in concentrating on one short but significant moment in the civil rights movement – it lasted three months – and has done it with confidence and more than a little guts. The events on screen are still within living memory, after all. We’re given a powerful reminder of this at the very end of the film, which finishes with the credits rolling to the background of archive audio of the marchers singing at Selma. At the screening I attended, nearly three quarters of the audience were still in their seats at the end of the credits. That doesn’t happen very often.
Selma is released around the UK on Friday, 6 February.