Selma, film review: History lesson of eloquent force that has unhappy modern-day resonance

(12A) Dir. Ava DuVernay; Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, 128mins
Click to follow

Instead of an overarching biopic of Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), Selma focuses on a single campaign in the civil rights movement: the 50-mile protest marches that he led from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in the certain knowledge that they would provoke state police and white supremacist posses into violence, and in the hope of thus provoking President Lindon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into action on what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The fact that, in 2013, the Supreme Court repealed parts of this act that was so hard won, gives Selma unhappy modern-day resonance. It's a historical drama that speaks about now, with the same forcefulness and eloquence for which King's own oratory is famed.

It also explains the necessary intricacies of the US legal and political system without ever forgetting that politics are supposed to be about people and their right to self-governance.


In backroom discussions between Dr King and President Johnson, or between King and his colleagues in the SCLC, which all crackle with the highly charged energy of men who know that they are at the centre of history, we see King as an astute and, where necessary, ruthless tactician.

In scenes with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), we see his charm and his strength of character, but feel the weight upon their marriage of his commitment to the cause and of the constant threat to their personal safety.

In the well-marshalled crowd scenes, we imagine that we can feel what drives each and every character. When the film shows baton blows raining upon them, we flinch. And when they stand together in unison and in triumph, we feel that too.