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Selma Review: Gripping, Powerful Submission to the Oscar Run

Selma represents the first contender for Oscar glory.
Review by Matt Cummings


Although 2015 has arrived, we're still dealing with the last-minute submissions for the 2014 Oscar season, an issue based mainly on the lack of nationwide releases for a select few. This isn't anything new: Zero Dark Thirty premiered released during the 2011 Oscar season but didn't make it way into wide release until the middle of January 2012. The same goes for Selma, the powerful, gripping tale of Martin Luther King, Jr's struggles to bring voting rights to African Americans.

Documenting the struggles of Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his movement try to re-establish voting rights for African Americans, a tense and prejudice United States of 1964 is centered in the city of Selma, Alabama. Here, a march is planned to the state's capital of Montgomery, location of Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his racist policies that have made it nearly impossible for residents like Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote. King debates this fact with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), an ardent supporter of equal rights who's worried that his landslide election won't be enough to push needed legislation through. But King also fights a war at home, as his marriage to wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) becomes strained, as the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) seek to discredit him. With the march planned and both sides preparing for war, King will shed national attention on the most uncomfortable stain on our nation's history.

The trouble with most 2014 films - great acting surrounded by less-than-admirable writing - is solved with Selma. DuVernay trains a careful Lincoln-esque eye by focusing on a very small period in King's life, rather than taking the Idris Elba approach in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The effect is far more powerful and might even make one upset at the total ignorance of the American notion of freedom prior to LBJ's sweeping 1964 Voting Rights Act. To suggest that we live in the same country where such apparent prejudice was carried out is hard to swallow, but again DuVernay leaves it up to us to judge. She's not here to punish us for our past indiscretions, merely to cast a reminder that we should never again repeat it. Neither is Paul Webb, whose first at-bat as Penner is a grandslam - he seems to get both the tone of the bigger picture as well as the human interaction for a man like King who's clearly tired of the struggle.

Then there's our acting troop, centered around Oyelowo - he's like the axle in a bike wheel. The room seems to move with him, bending to his will, surrounded by top-name talent (Wendell Pierce, Keith Stansfield, and even Common) but none of whom seek to outdo the other. Oyelowo inhabits King, soon taking his imagery on, then his voice, and eventually his persona. By the time the final march happens and his growing peace movement crosses the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, you'd swear it was King. Roth plays the detestable Governor with just enough zing to keep him interesting; in the end, his is the worst-drawn of the lot, simply there as a plot device rather than someone you could truly despise. It's funny to say, but typical single badguy has been replaced in Selma by the entire white population ofthat town. We never get to know its inhabitants, but it's their collective hatred for and unspeakable crimes against Blacks which make them perhaps the top villain of 2014. The truth hurts, and in Selma, we see a world still living on the backwards principles that started the Civil War.

But the film also exposes a little-known smudge on King's record: his multiple affairs which nearly ended his marriage. When that sequence appears smack dab in the middle of his efforts in Selma, it's like a little gut punch that humanizes, rather than demonize. DuVernay doesn't spend much time on this, but it's appreciated that she makes the effort - I'm not into the whole demystifying thing, but film can become a little to self-gratifying, elevating its topic to unbelievable heights. DuVernay doesn't give in to this temptation, crafting a scene that admits the faults but moves on.

If there's one issue I have with Selma is the inappropriate use of Common's track Glory at film's end. In it, he relates Selma to Ferguson and the unfortunate circumstances that recently engulfed that city. The events of Selma are in no way related to Ferguson, and any attempt to relate one to the other is a sure-fire way to make you look dumb. Regardless of their reasons for its inclusion, I can't support it.

Selma doesn't pretend to be anything other than a powerful message about the paradox of American values and the man caught in the middle of changing that dim-witted view. To see Americans war against each other for their basic human rights is a sickening invitation, but Selma attacks it head on by exposing the time and the man in the most honest way possible. Oyelowo turns in an Oscar-worthy performance - as does Wilkinson as LBJ - before the end theme makes an unfortunate guffaw. But over, it's a real Oscar candidate I can get behind. It may have taken all of 2014 (and part of 2015) to find one, but I think we a winner. Finally.

Selma is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language ad has a runtime of 128 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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