Nuanced, Beautiful, and Devastating: A Review of Ava DuVernay’s Selma


The Film: Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay
Primary Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Keith Stanfield, Wendell Pierce, Oprah Winfrey, Lorraine Toussaint, Tessa Thompson (The supporting case it pretty large, so I’m just going to stop there.)
U.S. Release Date: 9 January 2015

I finally got to see Selma on Friday, woo! While I can’t say that Selma is my favorite film of 2014, it is certainly one of the most important. On top of that, it’s also much better than the other two awards season biopics I have seen so far, and it even gives me some hope that the genre is not entirely without its virtues.

Selma: A Quick Take
It almost feels wrong to try to review a film like Selma, a film which, by its very nature and virtue, cannot be reduced to a blog post. I suppose this goes for most worthwhile films, but the timing and the political reality surrounding Selma heighten the effect beyond its usual intensity. That said, I’m going to review it anyway.

Directed by Ava DuVernary, Selma is an MLK biopic with a perfectly narrow and focused scope. The film begins with King’s reception of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and focuses on the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965. The film is set near the beginning of LBJ’s presidency and at a time when it was nearly impossible for blacks in the south to exercise their right to vote.

Two of the best things about Selma are the grace with which it navigates history and the skill with which it avoids many common biopic pitfalls.

This is no myth-making biopic, nor does the film attempt to exploit King’s entire life for any sort of superficial effect. Instead, Selma takes root firmly in the real and in the deeply personal. DuVernay’s presentation of King and Oyelowo’s masterful performance make it very clear that he was a not a legend in his own time, but a man. King is humanized and brought down to earth by this film; at the same time, those who marched with him are also afforded some of the recognition and the pathos that they deserve. 

While this inspiring and devastating film certainly has a huge heart, its voice, it’s power, and it’s intelligence are all even larger. Selma is emotional, decidedly human, and razor sharp all at once. Put simply, if you aren’t both impressed and moved by Selma, then I really don’t know what to tell you. 

DuVernay and Co. 
Ava DuVernay certainly deserves the praise (and the Golden Globe nomination) that she has received for this film. Her work in Selma is powerful, and definitely gives the impression that she is a director to watch. In fact, after watching the film, one is left with the feeling that she is the only one who could have made this story as multi-layered, as powerful, and as real as she does. Her take on King’s story reminds viewers that he was much more than a public figure with a dream; he was also a man with a family and a private life and was someone who had to be calculating and strategic in order to get anything done. At the same time, DuVernay also captures the spirit of the people of Selma and of those who stood with king that history has more or less forgotten.

In addition to its direction, the film’s cinematography is also quite strong. Bradford Young (who is also the cinematographer for A Most Violent Year) does fine work in the film. The film is filled with powerful images and is beautifully shot.

Oyelowo and Co. 
David Oyelowo does an outstanding job of portraying King. As much as I enjoyed Keaton in Birdman, I certainly would have no problem with Oyelowo winning the Oscar in February.

Given how iconic MLK is in our society, it’s not difficult to imagine an actor with less skill (or with less respect for the role) straying rather unfortunately into the realm of caricature with this role. Thankfully, Oyelowo never does this. His King is not defined by any 8th grade history book’s perception of him. His King is defined by his humanity. 

Oyelowo’s performance is personal and complex. It is fully realized and wonderfully believable. King in Selma is as much a man with doubts, troubles, and weaknesses as he is a hero, an activist, and a powerful orator. He is a husband, he is a black man in a world that hates black men, he is admired, he is a man whose mission drives and burdens all at once.

Though Oyelowo is undoubtedly the star of this film, many of the supporting cast also do great work. I was particularly impressed with Roth’s restrained portrayal of racist Alabama Governor George Wallace.

I was also happy to see Keith Stanfield in this film, and I hope to continue seeing more of him in coming years. Though his role in Selma is not particularly large, he makes an impact all the same and is clearly a young actor worth watching.

Carmen Ejogo also does a fine job as Coretta Scott King as does Tom Wilkinson as LBJ.

Small Complaints
Selma‘s weakness are really quite small when compared to its strengths. They are also relatively few in number. That said, I don’t feel great about reviewing a film without mentioning a way or two in which it could have been improved.

First, the film seems to suffer a bit from a surplus of underdeveloped side characters. The supporting cast for this film is quite large, but a sizable portion of its characters aren’t fleshed out enough to feel as real as the film would probably like them to. To be fair, this situation does seem somewhat unavoidable given the topic of the film, and it’s hard to say whether narrowing its scope even further by cutting some of the characters surrounding King would have improved anything. After all, Selma is as much about the people that King led and worked with as it is about King himself.

Second, while the film’s writing is strong for the most part, there were a few lines in Selma that I found myself cringing at just a tad. The problem with such lines (which really are few in number) is that they seem a tad over wrought and almost undermine the shrewdness and the incredible nuance of the rest of the film. Put another way, there are a couple of moments when the films seems to veer ever so slightly toward the overly sentimental inelegance that I associate with Spielberg, but it always manages to correct itself. 

Some Final Thoughts
Selma is an important film for many reasons, and it is one that our society clearly needs to pay attention to. There is a line in the film where LBJ mentions 1985 and another (which appears as text on the screen near the end) which reminds viewers that many of those who marched with King are still alive. Selma makes it terribly difficult to ignore the fact that the Civil Rights Movement is not ancient history and harrowingly highlights just how much of King’s dream remains unrealized.

Lastly, it’s absolutely fantastic to see a film directed by a black woman have so much success. It’s no secret that women and people of color are terribly underrepresented in Hollywood; Selma does not change this fact, but it does offer those of us concerned with such matters a small glimmer of hope.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts on Selma with a comment below!

I will try to catch up on Oscar-favorites over the next couple of weeks. The plan is post a “Top 10 of 2014” post as well as one in which I share which films I would like to see win the major Academy Awards. So, if you are someone who follows this blog, you have that to look forward to. Yeah 😐

Anyway, go see Selma!

3 thoughts on “Nuanced, Beautiful, and Devastating: A Review of Ava DuVernay’s Selma

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