‘Selma’ Review: When History Ignites
“Wow” is a word I don’t get to use very often, but Selma is absolutely stunning. In that it actually stunned me to see a filmmaker even tackle the Civil Rights marches in Selma, AL at all. In that the filmmakers had both the ambition to dramatize this material and the skill to achieve it. In that they told the story in such a way that it does justice to the events and the people involved. In that they made a movie about a complex social, political and personal situation and made it totally enthralling, and not just a history lesson.
Selma is “You Are Here” storytelling. It captures the immediacy of events that have already turned into names and dates in history books, bringing them to life with all the energy and danger of their original moment. It balances the historical context with the unpredictability of a single point in time, in which politicians and citizens were boiling their blood over issues that mattered so much that many were willing to lay down their lives. Anything could have happened. The unthinkable often did. And Selma depicts it all with a gripping, majestic flourish that feels just right.
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The film kicks off with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, and heading almost directly into his next uphill battle. Selma, AL is the powder keg he needs to ignite. It’s populated with racists who will make headlines for the Civil Rights Movement, and eventually force President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to react, and finally pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent racial discrimination at the polls.
And yes, that Voting Rights Act was recently struck down by the Supreme Court in a controversial decision. And yes, the riots depicted in Selma bear haunting similarities to recent events in Ferguson, MO. It’s shocking to see how little has really changed, no matter how far we seem to have come. Like the best historical stories, Selma makes the past seem like a vital component of who we are today. It’s as relevant now as it will ever be, and it will always be a wrenching experience.
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The screenplay by Paul Webb sprawls, yet stays focused on the events as they transpire. History itself seems to be the protagonist, barreling through with fierce determination, and the vast cast of characters are simply here for support. David Oyelowo gives a phenomenal performance as Dr. King: he’s great and small, unafraid to treat King as a man accepting the role of a figurehead, but reacting to the consequences with vulnerability and frustration.
But Selma isn’t just about Dr. King. It cares just as much for everyone involved. People who seem small eventually play vital roles as the conflict plays out, and some of the people who looked impossibly important appear to shrink on screen as history leaves them behind, ultimately looking back with shame. The crowd of supporting characters benefits from powerfully concise writing that gives everyone a part to play whether or not they have a single line, coming together under director Ava DuVernay’s meticulous guidance to show just how important every individual is, and the impact we all can have on history.
Perfectly filmed by cinematographer Bradford Young, excitingly edited by Spencer Averick, and brought to you by Ava DuVernay, announcing herself as an important new voice in filmmaking, Selma isn’t just one of the best movies of the year. It’s one of the most exceptional historical films in decades. This is exciting. This is impressive.