“Our lives are not fully lived if we're not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe.”
Martin Luther King is a very popular figure, so the biggest risk for a biopic like this is simply retelling a familiar story, which is what most directors do turning films like this into history lessons. You are sort of expecting this inspiring and uplifting film that will have its emotional moments once King stands up and delivers his world famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but Ava DuVernay takes an entirely different approach. Instead of following a timeline and going through important dates in King’s life she simply introduces us to an important and defining moment in his life. And by doing this DuVernay allows us to center on the person that King was, learning about his struggles, fears, and so on. King is portrayed in a different and more humane light and isn’t simply a figure we idolize. It is something similar to what Spielberg did with Lincoln, but much more engaging this time. DuVernay is able to avoid falling into biopic genre conventions and centers the narrative on King’s efforts to organize a march in Selma in order to secure equal voting rights for all. In the large context it might just have been a short period in his life, but by focusing on this specific and detailed event we are able to learn who King was and how he was able to face each obstacle. It also reminds us that organizing a march isn’t as simple as one can imagine. In a general biopic about Martin Luther King this would simply take about five minutes, but here we get the specifics which at the same time allows us to learn the importance of what King was fighting for while we also get to finally see him portrayed with some depth. DuVernay was robbed by the Academy from a Best Director nod because she crafted a powerful film avoiding familiar clichés and melodrama.
Selma gets about everything right: the script by Paul Webb is solid and there are some fantastic dialogues and speeches throughout the film, the cinematography by Bradford Young is sharp, and the production design transports us to the 60’s in a very authentic way. But the film wouldn’t have worked without the right actor to play Martin Luther King. David Oyelowo delivers one of my favorite performances of the year as King. His transformation is impressive. Not for a second did I think that this was an actor playing the famous figure. Oyelowo is like a chameleon, able to transform from one movie to the next. This is a completely different person from the actor who played Yardley in The Paperboy. He portrayed King in a very different light from what we are used to seeing him. We’ve all seen and heard King deliver his speeches and Oyelowo personifies him in the same way with similar tones and pauses. But it is in the smaller moments where Oyelowo’s subtle performance stands out as he shines a more humane light on King, reflecting some of his fears and doubts as he second guesses himself at times. There are quiet moments where he doesn’t know what to say or how to react to situations. There is a scene where he has to comfort a family who has lost their son, and he seems to be lost for words. He also shares some great scenes with Carmen Ejogo who plays his wife, and Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson. The supporting performances are also strong as several popular and historical figures pop into the movie. Tim Roth delivers one of my favorite supporting performances as Gov. George Wallace, but many more stand out as well. Selma is a gripping film beautifully directed by DuVernay with a wonderful and memorable performance from Oyelowo.