Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
It is shocking that with the amount of Biopics and life story Films coming out each year, no one has ever tackled one about Martin Luther King Jr. The leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement is an important Historical Figure unlike any other, and his Life Story remains both alarming and captivating nearly 50 years after his assassination.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is not the full Story of King’s life. But much like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Lincoln, it focuses on a small but important period in King’s (David Oyelowo) Story – mainly, the march for equal voting rights in the titular Alabama Town.
Selma could not have come at a better time in terms of social relevance, but the Film tries to not be overtly political. It sticks to the Story (though many have taken issue as of late with potential factual inaccuracies), and frames the struggle for Civil Rights as both thrilling and deeply emotional. And while the Film has a few fun moments, the outrage and sadness that envelopes the Film, makes it nearly unbearable to watch in some scenes. Thankfully DuVernay is subtle in the majority of her choices letting the Story and the Character’s actions speak for themselves – including King’s own indiscretions. She allows it to become overly preachy in some areas however, and the artistic license used in choice slow motion sequences feels superfluous and overdone. She wants you to really pay attention to the atrocities taking place on-screen, but I just felt like I was being taken totally out of the Movie.
Oyelowo is stunning as King. His roles have slowly been rising in prominence over the past five years, and he knocks this Film sailing out of the park. He inhabits every ounce, word and breath of the Civil Rights Activist, and every frame winces from how powerful and commanding his performance is. He’s even better when he is saying nothing at all whether he is surveying the chaos on-screen or quietly contemplating what someone else has said to him. You can practically see the energy dissipating when he is not on-screen – the Cast simply cannot compare to how amazing Oyelowo is.
The Supporting Cast is great despite this. Standouts like Wendell Pierce, Keith Stanfield, Stephan James, Tessa Thompson (who stunned in this past Fall’s Dear White People), Tom Wilkinson (as President Lyndon B. Johnson) and a surprisingly low-key Oprah Winfrey all deliver terrific performances. The only Cast Member who comes close to matching Oyelowo‘s command is Carmen Ejogo as King’s Wife, Coretta. Watching her question and accuse him of infidelity is worth the price of admission on its own.
There is a lot of debate on the facts and how DuVernay presents them in Selma. But even looking past them, the Film is a thrilling and searing portrait of a fascinating Historical Figure. DuVernay allows King to be flawed and imperfect (instead of the upstanding and saint-like martyr Spielberg made Abraham Lincoln into), and that is an accomplishment all in itself. And packed alongside Oyelowo’s brilliant performance makes Selma simply unmissable.
Paramount Pictures Canada release SELMA, now in theatres.