Selma (2014), directed by Ava Duvernay, takes on the 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King through Alabama as a benchmark moment in the fight for voting rights and, more generally, civil rights for black citizens in the American South.
It’s the kind of film that can get lost in hagiography and simplification. Duvernay sidesteps both with a nuanced, complicated portrait of King (played here by British actor David Oyelowo) as a man aware of his power as an orator and as a leader, as well as a savvy campaigner with a keen understanding of the workings of the corporate media and local and national politics and powers. Selma was carefully chosen for this event because of, not despite, the potential for violence, one of the ironies revealed in the film: to get the news media to pay attention to injustice, King and his partners in protest had to give them conflict.
That comes at a cost and much of Selma is about the cost and the stakes of movement. Oyelowo, star of Duvernay’s previous film Middle of Nowhere, plays King with grace and dignity, but he’s always aware of what people are putting on the line. There are conflicts within in the movement and with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was the greatest ally the movement had in the White House but was also a politician.
The film has been criticized for its portrayal of Johnson’s resistance to King’s insistence on moving ahead quickly with voting rights, a conflict partly engineered in the film for dramatic purpose, but I think the critics protest too much. Those scenes illustrate how even supporters of the cause cannot fully understand the reality of living under such repressive laws or the urgency for change. This isn’t a film about Johnson or even, at heart, about King. It is about a culture, a movement, a moment in history, a great injustice that should never be forgotten, and the lives affected by that injustice. Duvernay’s greatest accomplishment is in humanizing history and reminding us of why it matters.
The superb supporting cast of committed performers includes Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, producer Oprah Winfrey, Common, Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, and Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover. Duvernay rewrote the screenplay without credit, due to conditions of original screenwriter Paul Webb’s deal.
Note that none of King’s speeches are included here. For reasons beyond my understanding, the King family would not allow Duvernay to use King’s speeches, but the film still manages to give us a sense of the power and passion of his words.
Selma received two Oscar nominations: for Best Picture and Best Original Song “Glory” by Common and John Legend, which it won. In 2020, actor David Oyowelo revealed that Academy voters snubbed the film after members of the cast and crew wore T-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” to the Los Angeles premiere in protest of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner.
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On Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate. The Blu-ray edition features the supplements: commentary by filmmaker Ava Duvernay and star David Oyelowo, the featurettes “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma,” deleted and extended scenes, and the music video for the Oscar-winning song, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.