Film Review: selma

“Negotiate, demonstrate and resist” – the mantra and considered approach of one Martin Luther King Jr, the preacher and founder of the SCLC movement of the mid-twentieth century; a peaceful yet determined outfit, set on establishing voting rights and demanding equality for the back population of the United States of America.

Selma, Alabama; the backdrop to the scene of what was initially hundreds of black African Americans and later, thousands of black and white folk from all over America, marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, to confront its sinister and racist governor George Wallace (played by the excellent Tim Roth).

King Jr (a fine performance by David Oleyowo it should be said), is portrayed as a man of great passion and religious conviction, yet a man that seemingly struggles somewhat to balance his life’s calling with the responsibilities he faces as a father and husband.

There’s clearly a great deal of heartfelt reverence in director Ava DuVernay’s re-telling of this pivotal point in America’s race relations history and such a serious and faithful rendition requires a strong cast: Selma’s cast delivers, right across the board.

We’re probably all aware of Martin Luther King Jr; a great man in anyone’s eyes and therefore a man whose story can probably be afforded a little artistic licence without detracting significantly from the salient points of his mission and story, yet Selma feels a little too much like a King Jr biopic; a linear re-telling of historical events and not quite the all powerful, cinematic experience it might have been.

Yes, in a rare turn of events, I’m actually bemoaning a lack of ‘Hollywood’ in a mainstream Hollywood release.

2014’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ was another film based upon true events and again tackling racial tensions and prejudices in America’s deep south, yet somehow possessing the ability to translate this effectively to the big screen, a quality that this King Jr biopic certainly strives for, yet curiously never quite achieves.

Whilst Selma does contain moments of intensity and conviction (notably the more violent altercations that transpire, along with some interesting observations with regard to the power and influence of both the church and the media), we never truly get under the skin of Martin Luther King Jr, the man, and this you sense is a critical flaw.
There was certainly far greater scope to explore King Jr, the family man and the somewhat unavoidable marital tensions between him and his wife Coretta (played by Carmen Ejogo); to really sense his true emotions, his inner demons and to fully appreciate the weight of expectation resting firmly upon the man’s shoulders. Perhaps DuVernay thought that that would have side-tracked us away a little too much from the principle point and focus of the film, but I suspect it could only have added the piece a greater depth.

From rapper ‘Common’ to America’s favourite daytime agony aunt and matriarch, Oprah Winfrey, (who incidentally turns in a nice cameo as Annie Lee Cooper), right through to producer Brad Pitt, it’s pretty obvious that America’s ‘A list’ wanted in on this project, but maybe that’s the real issue here: The enormity of Selma – the subject matter and agenda – seems on this occasion to have dwarfed Selma – the movie – resulting in an admittedly well-intentioned, respectful and occasionally powerful homage to a great man and an important set of events in, American and world history, yet, for one reason or another, a piece that doesn’t truly satisfy or realise its potential on the big screen.

Good, but above all, a bit of a missed opportunity.

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