In 1965, civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King, and accompanied by followers from around the nation, marched from Selma, Ala. to the capital of Montgomery to protest voter discrimination. These events are dramatized in the 2015 Paramount Pictures film “Selma”.
“Selma” opens on King (David Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. From there, the story is thrust right into the civil rights struggle depicting King’s tense negotiations with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the first two failed marches and his strained marriage during the march.
What appealed to me the most in this film was the amazing ensemble cast. Without a doubt, Oyelowo’s performance was astounding. He was also supported by masters of the craft such as Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Colmon Domingo and cameo appearances by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen. I never once during this film felt that Oyelowo had to carry the film. He was supported at all times by his co-stars. Even the very small roles like that of James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) were masterfully done. I would say the greatest strength “Selma” had was its casting.
Where the ensemble performance glowed, Oyelowo’s positively beamed. His depiction of King was flawless. The cadence of his voice, the way he carried himself – all of it came together to create this carbon copy of the venerated civil rights leader. In intimate scenes with his wife, you see a tenderness about him that connects you. When he is standing against the president in confidence, you feel empowered by him. When he speaks to the public, you are moved by him.
In particular, the last scene of the film where King delivers his famous “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” speech alone made the movie great. I was rocked by Oyelowo’s performance. It was electrifying, full of power. In 2013 Oyelowo played Louis Gaines – a follower of King, incidentally – in director Lee Daniel’s “The Butler”. His performance in that film was good, but it lacked the maturity he brought to his role in “Selma.” In “The Butler,” we saw a good performance. In “Selma” we were treated to a great one.
My only complaint with “Selma” is one which befalls nearly all biographical films – it can drag at times. Real life is not the carefully crafted script of Hollywood, and while you can trim out the boring dinners and long drives of everyday life before bringing a story to the big screen, there is a sense in which real life does not fit the three-act structure of Hollywood. At times, “Selma” seemed slow. Its total running time is just over two hours, and while most of that is a very enjoyable experience, there are times where I felt I could have done without the scenes.
One thing to note in the film: the character James Bevel was played by rapper Common, whose musical career focuses on issues of social justice and awareness. I was surprised to see his performance did not lack quality, something I expect from musicians making the leap into film (though this is by no means his first foray into acting). Where Common stood out, however, was not in his performance, but in his song “Glory,” which played over the end credits. This song was an anthem of sorts, highlighting many social movements over the decades including recent ones like the protests in Ferguson. The song was a perfect bookend to the film, closing it out on a note of continued struggle for equality in all areas.
Matt Whitney is a senior film production major. This review reflects the view of the writer only.