By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
As much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has done for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he had not received a feature film treatment until now. It is certainly long overdue that the iconic leader gets the cinematic tribute he surely deserves. Selma may not be as comprehensive as the movie Malcolm X is for the also iconic Islamic leader, but it does offer an in depth, intimate look at the man behind the legend as he fought for Black voting rights in the South. Writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay have made a powerful and inspirational film that doesn’t pull any punches when portraying a sad and dreadful time in human history.
Talented and eloquent actor David Oyelowo stars as MLK and very much embodies the vocal cadence and timbre of the charismatic activist. The year is 1965, and even though Dr. King has been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, and has galvanized some of Americas legislators into making some historical changes in our nation’s laws, his work is not finished. Despite the fact that the U.S. Congress has extended the right to vote to all Americans, Southern officials in Alabama have taken additional measures to impede registered Black voters from voting in local elections. While Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) encourages these obstacles to voting rights, and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has his hands full with the Vietnam War and other problems, Dr. King refuses to sit idly while his people suffer further violence whenever fighting to exercise their legal rights.
What really struck me about this film is development and portrayal of MLK. Webb and DuVernay do exceptional work in capturing the genuine human side of the legendary leader. Audiences get to see King’s vulnerabilities as well as his strengths. In footage of his historical speeches, marches and protests, people only see one perspective, but often don’t get to witness the emotional toll his work took on his life, marriage and family. Selma helps remind people that Dr. King was human and had real human problems and limitations, but this very personal look at his life and work makes him that much more exceptional and remarkable. Oyelowo’s excellent performance wonderfully brings MLK back to life and brings a real humanity to a man often viewed as a superhuman.
Oyelowo achieves a lovely balance between his anger and sadness, and draws strength and power from these negative places, much like Dr. King. The movie also features great performances by Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Tom Wilkinson (President LBJ), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper) and many other talented actors. I do have complaints about a couple of casting choices, though. As much as I usually like Tim Roth’s work, I feel his portrayal of Governor George Wallace comes across as a villainous caricature and not so much as a portrayal of the real controversial politician. Webb and DuVernay also share some of the blame for this. The writing and development of the Wallace character plays out like a snarling, mustache curling bad guy. Also, another actor I also enjoy seeing, Dylan Baker, is the wrong choice for J. Edgar Hoover. At first, I had no idea whatsoever whom he’s portraying until his name gets mentioned. It seems like little effort is put into the portrayal of this also controversial historical figure.
Aside from those gripes, I found the movie to be a first rate, cinematic treatment of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To be fair, it would be rather difficult to do a comprehensive film of his life that is three hours or less. The extraordinary life and accomplishments of Dr. King could easily make for a multi-part mini-series. I suppose other movies could be made, but I’d want the filmmakers to cast David Oyelowo every time.