Film Review: Selma image

Film Review: Selma

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Selma contains two things that often compromise a good story: an important message and a well known true story. Biopics and polemics equally detract from compelling storytelling, because in both you go in feeling like you already know what's going to be said. What is remarkable about Selma, therefore, is that while portraying one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, and while saying some incredibly important things, it still manages to be a film that grabs the audience and doesn't let go, never forgetting that it is a work of cinema, not a sermon or documentary.

Part of this is thanks to outstanding direction from Ava DuVernay. Relatively unknown in mainstream cinema, DuVernay makes a massive impact here by throwing you straight into the campaign. The events of Selma take place after the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, and this is not a chronicle of Martin Luther King’s life; instead it’s about one crucial period of the civil rights movement and the fight to obtain the right to vote. Instead of ticking the boxes of life events, DuVernay, camera up close and personal, drags the audience into the middle of one moment. That means as a protester falls, beaten by the police, the audience falls with it. It also means that you are there in the middle of the debates, engaging with and a part of what is going on, and there in the quietness, contemplating the emotional toll that such a long and arduous fight would take. Although Dr. King is the focus, this is an ensemble drama, and the audience is part of that, becoming a marcher, a campaigner, a confidante.

It’s also thanks to David Oyelowo, who gives one of the best performances of a real person ever seen. He absolutely nails the distinctive timbre of King’s baptist preacher style in public, and at one point, after some archive footage has played, Oyelowo’s voice is genuinely indistinguishable from the real thing. Yet this is more than just an uncanny impersonation, and it is in the quiet moments that you see the way the British actor captures the spirit, not just the voice, of the man. King is so iconic, yet Oyelowo finds the human behind the icon, showing his weaknesses, his doubts and his fears. Refreshingly, too, he shows his sense of humour, which is not something many writers or actors would think to include. Every actor in the impressively balanced ensemble gives an excellent performance, but in the middle of it all is Oyelowo, and when he is on screen it is impossible not to watch.

One thing that DuVernay, Oyelowo and writer Paul Webb highlight is the faith of Martin Luther King, both as his inspiration for the cause and his strength when it gets difficult. Oyelowo has spoken openly about how God told him he would play this role, and the actor’s faith gives conviction to the depiction of man who relies on God for everything. One of the most moving moments in the film is when the leader sits in prison, dejected, and asks one of his friends if it is all worth it. His friend’s response is to quote Matthew 6, reassuring him to not be anxious because God is looking after him. Similarly, at another of his lowest moments he calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, in the middle of the night, so that she can sing a hymn about God’s strength and our weakness. It’s clear throughout where King gets the resilience to fight for his cause when everything seems to be against him.

Yet God features in a much more prominent role as the very reason their campaign exists in the first place. Tim Keller recently tweeted on Martin Luther King day: “MLK’s antidote to racism was rooted in divine appeal. He quoted Amos – Let justice roll down like water and righteousness in a mighty stream,” and that sense of the righteousness of the cause permeates the film. Every element of King’s campaign is rooted in his faith, and in more than one scene his speeches become sermons and vice versa. For him, racial equality and the kingdom of God were inextricable; praying the Lord’s prayer and asking for ‘your kingdom come’ necessarily means praying for a world where there is no oppression. This belief in the righteousness of civil rights then led him and others to act. One of the film’s most powerful shots sees clergy from all denominations lining up to demonstrate together. There is an eschatological hope to it, too; the film ends on a variation of one of King’s famous speeches, where he declares ‘Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.’ A day will come when his battle, and all righteous battles will be won.

Selma is, of course, not just about racism in the 1960s. As the song playing over the end credits directly references the events in Ferguson, and as the cast turned up to a premiere wearing T-Shirts saying “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, a black man choked to death by the police, it’s clear that the words and actions of Martin Luther King are just as important for today as they were then. Lyndon B. Johnson’s main argument to not make civil rights a priority was that there were more important things to consider and that equality had already been achieved – rhetoric used today by anyone apathetic or antipathetic towards civil rights. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in American news will be aware of the legally absolved acts of violence against African Americans that regularly make the news and this is certainly a film with its eye on America. Here in the UK, however, it’s equally important to be aware of the rising tide of insular nationalism and how that leads to the conflation of ‘Britishness’ and skin colour, and to be prepared to combat racial oppression on any level. The response of the white majority in Selma, ranging from ignorance and apathy to violence and hatred, should serve as a warning.

Selma, therefore, is both an excellent piece of film making with an astonishing central performance and a provocation to white Christians today. Do we support oppression, or the oppressed? Do we see racial equality as a kingdom principle – and is that expressed in our churches and communities? Most crucially of all, are we aware that there is still a problem?

Selma is released in the UK on February 6th

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