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D: Ava DuVernay / 128m

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, André Holland, Stephan James, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Wendell Pierce, Alessandro Nivola, Stephen Root, Oprah Winfrey, Dylan Baker, Cuba Gooding Jr, Martin Sheen

1964. Martin Luther King Jr (Oyelowo) receives the Nobel Peace Prize, mere weeks after the deaths of four children in an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Also in Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) tries to register to vote but has her application denied. King visits President Lyndon B. Johnson (Wilkinson) at the White House to ask for federal legislation that will allow black citizens to register without being impeded. Johnson tells him that, while he agrees with  King about the issue, it’s not one that he’ll be focusing on any time soon. Having already decided to march on the courthouse in Selma, Alabama if the President refuses to help, King sets things in motion.

Joined by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), King and his followers march on the courthouse where they’re confronted by the town sheriff and his men. A brawl ensues during which Clark is assaulted by Annie Lee Cooper and King and several others are jailed. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace (Roth) is angered by the protest, and when a night march in Marion is planned, he takes steps to have it dispersed. The march ends in violence and leads to the death of a young protester, shot while trying to avoid trouble in a restaurant. Following this, King receives criticism for his beliefs but he continues to insist that people should be fighting for their rights.

Another march is planned, this time from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, a distance of fifty miles. Leaving Selma, the march crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge where it is met by state troopers who instruct everyone to disperse. When they don’t, the troopers put on gas masks and start hurling tear gas into the crowd; they also attack the march using clubs and other weapons, as well as riding people down. It’s all witnessed by TV news crews and broadcast live across the nation, leaving Johnson angry at Wallace’s actions. He sends John Doar (Nivola), the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights to try and persuade King to call off the next attempt at marching to Montgomery, while he personally attempts to coerce Wallace into resolving the issue of registration and the use of state troopers if the march goes ahead.

White Americans who support King’s cause and civil rights in general, arrive to take part in the march. Again they cross the bridge, but this time King is leading. When they see the state troopers, they’re surprised to see them step aside. King kneels and prays for a few minutes, then heads back into Selma, effectively cancelling the march. More political manoeuvrings go on, including Johnson asking Congress for the quick passing of a bill to eliminate restrictions on registering, and the march to Montgomery finally goes ahead.

Selma - scene

For America, the Sixties were a turbulent decade, one that saw a variety of freedoms and rights enshrined in law, and the beginning of a transition from the kind of post-War conservatism that saw danger in any type of change, to a more free-minded liberalism that challenged the old order on almost every front. Racial issues were high on the agenda, if not for the politicians, then certainly for black people, and not just in the South. It was a time when people from all walks of life began to stand up and say, “enough is enough” (or to paraphrase Howard Beale in Network (1976): “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”). But as ever, the battle was an uphill one, and there were plenty of people, equally, who were prepared to see it fail.

The determination and the will to succeed that existed in Martin Luther King Jr is shown here as forceful and impassioned, but there’s a measure of self-doubt as well, and it’s this rounding of the man that helps make the movie as commanding as it is. Avoiding any attempts at mythologising King, Selma gives us a portrait of a man fully aware of his mission in life and confident enough to second-guess himself when needed. It’s a balance that could have been lost on several occasions during the course of the movie, not least in its depiction of his troubled marriage, where the script so neatly sidesteps any possibility of descending into soap opera that it makes for a refreshing change. And the complexities of the organisations involved and how they all interact with King, are also well handled, showing the figurehead but not the leader. The movie shows King making decisions based both on his own ideas and those of others, and if his opponents – such as Wallace – appear too one-dimensional in comparison, well, maybe that’s because they just were.

King is played with tremendous gravitas and skill by Oyelowo, imbuing King with a pride and a sensitivity that never seem at odds with each other. It’s an impressive achievement, sharply detailed, perfectly pitched, and one of the finest acting performances you’re likely to see in a long while. It helps that he has a passing resemblance to King, but it’s the voice that he captures so well, that distinctive, low cadence that could rise to a crescendo so effortlessly in the middle of a sentence. It’s not far from the truth to say that Oyelowo inhabits the man rather than impersonates or mimics him (listen to the speech the real King made when the march reached Montgomery, and then listen to Oyelowo’s version and see how close he is), and he’s just as effective in the movie’s more pensive moments as he is when called upon to be the fiery orator.

Good as Oyelowo’s performance – and it is very good – he wouldn’t have been anywhere near as imposing if it weren’t for an extremely well-structured and heavily nuanced script, courtesy of Paul Webb (his first). He makes the politics easy to understand, the characters easy to empathise with or condemn (as necessary), and he doesn’t rein in on the complexities of the issues concerned. It’s a great screenplay, and the rest of the cast, aided and abetted by DuVernay’s strong, sanguine direction, relish every scene and line at their disposal. (If there is one area, though, where Webb fails to convince, it’s in Johnson’s refusal to address the issue of voting registration; his arguments are spurious at best, though they may have been so at the time – it’s hard to tell.)

DuVernay, making only her third feature, emphasises the various relationships that develop between the different factions, and never loses sight of the human factor in amongst all the politicking. She uses the camera with aplomb, particularly with medium shots, imparting a level of detail some more experienced directors fail to achieve ever. And there’s a richness about the movie that speaks of carefully considered choices made ahead of filming, of everyone involved knowing exactly what’s required and everyone involved having the conviction to carry it off. The mood of the times, and the look of the times, are tellingly rendered, and the atmosphere surrounding the planning of each march is palpable, taking the movie – unwittingly perhaps – into thriller territory. But the drama remains throughout, and by the movie’s end, the audience is rejoicing almost as much as the characters are.

Rating: 9/10 – a rewarding look at a particular place and time in American history, Selma takes a flashpoint that resonates far beyond its happening, and makes it as compelling and vital as if it were happening today; a triumph for all concerned and buoyed by Oyelowo’s superb performance, DuVernay’s apposite approach to the material, and Webb’s rewarding screenplay.