Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. United Kingdom/USA, 2014. Cloud Eight Films, Celador Films, Harpo Films, Pathe, Plan B Entertainment. Screenplay by Paul Webb. Cinematography by Bradford Young. Produced by Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey. Music by Jason Moran. Production Design by Mark Friedberg. Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter. Film Editing by Spencer Averick. Academy Awards 2014. Golden Globe Awards 2014.
By 1964, the Civil Rights movement is the hottest issue on America’s mind and the wise, pro-peace, pro-equality speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) have taken him from being a Georgia preacher to a world-famous Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of a movement. At the point that we find him in this powerful tale, he has just received his honour in Oslo and is preparing for what will become a historic turning point in the nation’s attempt to eradicate injustice and oppression, the march from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery, to protest the restrictions on voting that were placed on African American citizens looking to exercise their right to do so. The Civil Rights Act was signed in July of 1964 and segregation was legally abolished, but actual cultural change is slow in a state run by the pro-segregation George Wallace (played in a ridiculously over-the-top performance by Tim Roth, which I say knowing full well how ridiculously over the top George Wallace was); the irony in director Ava DuVernay’s recapturing of the events surrounding this incredible event is that even after these laws are changed, the only white man’s house that Dr. King is made welcome in is that of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The march is originally attempted by citizens of Selma who are brutally attacked by law enforcement officers and, given that the entire thing is televised for the nation to see, inspire thousands of citizens of all races and religions to come from all over the country and join the second aborted attempt and the eventually successful third. The south becomes the focus of change in America as a frustrated Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) seems interested in doing the right thing but is primarily focused on his own political success, while King maintains through his intelligent and moving speeches that non-violence is the only way to achieve change even under the most demeaning and trying of circumstances. DuVernay’s well-acted, dramatically satisfying epic pretty much has everything you need to include thematically, hinting at all topics without really focusing on anything in particular: the dark side of southern culture that was eternally affected by the end of the Civil War, the hopelessness of black citizens trying to live decent middle-class lives in places where they are treated like the worst of criminals no matter what they do (producer Oprah Winfrey‘s few scenes demonstrate this beautifully), the internal strife among the various activist groups (the SCLC versus SNCC is intelligently rendered), a few hints at Dr. King’s own personal problems (with Coretta Scott King effectively played by Carmen Ejogo) and, at the heart of it all, the tension between state and federal power that is generally responsible for the slow nature of change in America. Including so much, even in a film that seeks to focus on one part of King’s life and not be a full biography, means that the narrative is spread a bit thin, making for a collection of excellent sequences that do not add up to one continuously excellent movie. A number of characters don’t have three dimensions, fitting into either hagiographic representations of important Civil Rights figures or rabid villains; King’s own marital troubles are mentioned briefly and quickly discarded, likely to focus on the important issues at hand and not get mired down in scandal-sheet nonsense, but it comes off instead as the fear of tarnishing a venerated image. It’s a shame that he isn’t a more dynamic character, particularly since Oyelowo’s magnificent performance gives the film all the cohesion it has, a fascinating portrayal that actually puts whatever charisma you ever imagined King to have directly on the screen. It’s a career high for an outstanding actor, marred only by the lack of enough scenes of seeing his doubts and struggles before getting to a place of resolution. While you’re better off with documentaries about King (or something similar in theme like Freedom On My Mind), you’re also thankfully nowhere near The Help territory either.