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Living and dying for Martin Luther King's dream

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Selma (M). Director: Ava DuVernay. Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey. 128 minutes

Much has been made of the racial and gender bias evident in this year's Oscar nominations. I will leave it to columnist Fatima Measham to reflect at greater length upon the underlying reasons for and implications of this issue (in an article that will appear on Friday). Suffice it for now to say that both Selma's director, African-American woman DuVernay, and its star, Oyelowo, a Black British-African man, deserve to have their names among the list of contenders at Hollywood's night of nights this weekend.

The film (which has been nominated for Best Picture, despite DuVernay's snubbing) takes place in 1965, at a time when Black Americans have been given the vote but when legal loopholes still exist that are as good as stone barriers in places where racial prejudice flourishes.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (a suitably curmudgeonly Wilkinson) has passed racial discrimination legislation some months before, but has since turned his attention to other aspects of his would-be legacy. With the likes of Alabama governor George Wallace (a hilariously smarmy Roth) agitating for the racist status quo, Johnson is inclined to try to placate recent Nobel Laureate King rather than genuinely entertain enacting legislation to enshrine Black voting rights.

King won't be placated. He begins to plan a series of actions centred on the town of Selma, Alabama, where repression has been particularly accute. These will culminate in the now-legendary Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965, but only after a certain amount of political and actual blood has been spilt. DuVernay's treatment of the conflicts between protestors and police is not sensational but it is shocking in its frank brutality. Throughout, she demonstrates the power of self-assured understatement.

The notorious crackdown at Edmund Pettus Bridge is narrated by a journalist reporting the event in a voice cracking with emotion to his editors. In turn, the 'live' action is juxtaposed with ordinary citizens watching the scenes unfold in news footage beamed into their homes. Thus in a few short minutes DuVernay captures the chaotic, tragic essence of the moment while at the same time highlighting the emerging power of media to amplify current events (something King sought strategically to harness).

The power of understatement is evident also in DuVernay's treatment of King's infidelity — an important inclusion in any fair, honest portrayal of the great man. It is addressed only once, when his wife Coretta (Ejogo) confronts him briefly and poignantly about it. King himself says very little in the scene, and its staging — the wife upright and righteous, the husband seated, sheepish but not openly repentant — speaks volumes about both characters, and the strength and vulnerability of their marriage.

Oyelowo's snub for his portrayal of Martin Luther King seems particularly egregious in a year when the Academy adored fact-based films (four of the five Best Actor nominees are recognised for their portrayal of historical figures). His performance does not rely upon prosthetics and caricature as does, for example, Steve Carell's nominated performance in Foxcatcher. He embodies King in mannerism and voice, and with a great depth of soul. His King is neither cartoonish nor purely mythic. He is human.

Oyelowo captures the diverse aspects of King's character with dignity and authenticity. His King is proud — incensed, for example, at the prospect of accepting help from Malcolm X, who had been famously critical of his mantra of non-violence — but also capable of great sadness when even one of his followers falls in the midst of the struggle. When he is speechifying — and there's plenty of that, as you'd expect — he is prophetic and charismatic, capable of moving the masses to move the world. But he is also plagued by doubts, and must at times be sustained by his colleagues and confidantes on the frontline.

Powerful as it is, Oyelowo's is but one performance in a film that is packed to the seams with powerful performances, large and small. A word must be said then about Oprah Winfrey, who appears in a small but definitive role as Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma local who, in one of the opening scenes, is denied her voting rights in humiliating fashion by a smirking desk clerk. Winfrey brings to the scene a palpable sense of dignified forbearance, a silent certitude even that she will see justice in the end. Her Cooper is pointedly the ordinary human face of King's non-violent resistance to the forces of oppression.

In short, DuVernay has made a superb period film that resonates loudly in the present day. The film's theme song, 'Glory', performed by John Legend and the rapper Common (who appears in the film as civil rights leader James Bevel), references Rosa Parks and Ferguson in the same breath. The large battles against injustice that King fought and won are part of a larger story of injustice that continues for Black Americans to this day. Perhaps this was a truth too unpalatable for the Academy to swallow.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Selma, Martin Luther King, Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth



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Existing comments

Thank you Tim for this fine and detailed review. I agree that the movie gains strength through understated direction. For years 'violence as entertainment' has been the norm for many Hollywood movies, but in 'Selma' nothing is done for entertainment, and we come out not only better informed on the events of the time, but with expanded sympathies for what millions of black people endured. It is possible too, to sympathize with LBJ in a difficult moment of his presidency. Martin Luther King is of course the (flawed) hero of the hour, but I was also fascinated by the group around him and their differing reactions to his judgments.

Rodney Wetherell | 19 February 2015  

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