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Sunday, December 28, 2014

SELMA Review

Left to right: David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.
Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima, © 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
2014, 128 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language

Review by Joshua Handler

Ava DuVernay's Selma is a landmark film.  Up until this point, there has not had a film focused around Martin Luther King, Jr.  There also hasn't been a great film about the Civil Rights movement because no filmmaker was willing to make the plunge and explore the movement in all of its political and psychological complexity.  Enter Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who had never directed a large studio film before.  She was best known as a director of acclaimed indies (she won the 2012 Sundance Best Director Prize for Middle of Nowhere).  With a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Paul Webb (DuVernay reportedly did a page-one rewrite, but didn't receive credit for it), an untested director (with this sort of film, at least), and a cast stacked with big-name actors and soon-to-be big-name actors, this film could have gone horribly wrong (as films with this much talent behind them have in the past), but luckily, everything (and I mean everything) went right under DuVernay's masterful direction.

Selma takes place during a three-month period in 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans.  While the time period covered may be short, the statement that Selma makes is one for the ages.  In this day and age, it's disturbing to see just how little progress we've made since the days of MLK.

Unlike other Civil Rights films, Selma depicts the time period with honesty, pain, and a sense of urgency.  Through her understated direction, DuVernay depicts the violence and persecution that the African-American people endured in the 1960s with passion.  Under DuVernay's direction, nothing is sensationalized, and everything feels relevant.  Selma never feels like just another historical drama, and DuVernay never treats it like one.  She treats this material as if it is a current event, never letting nostalgia or crowd-pleasing tactics get in the way of the intensity and danger of the events depicted.  DuVernay develops each and every character to immerse us in their struggle.  

To further immerse us in the time period in which Selma is set, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb explore the politics and psychological drama behind the key players in the story.  This gives the film yet another layer of complexity and makes it and its characters all the more fascinating to watch.

David Oyelowo's performance is nothing short of a revelation.  He completely embodies Martin Luther King, Jr.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Oyelowo portrays MLK as a fragile human being full of self-doubt, not as an icon.  Oyelowo cuts to the heart of MLK and portrays him with subtlety, passion, and fire.  The speech sequences are so convincing that I completely forgot that I was watching an actor and not the real MLK.

Carmen Ejogo is another standout as Coretta Scott King.  Though she only appears in a handful of sequences, they are some of the most important and moving of the entire film.  Ejogo's expressive face and confident screen presence make her stand out in a truly superb ensemble.

Bradford Young's cinematography is magnificent, as usual.  Of particular note is the evocative, which adds extra subtext to each scene.  Additionally, Young's unconventional, yet very effective framing makes his work all the more noteworthy.  It's wonderful to see that his talents are being utilized on high-profile films such as this and A Most Violent Year.

Overall, Selma is an intimate, yet epic, painful, yet hopeful masterwork about one of the darkest periods in American history.  Selma is traditional in many respects, but has such unconventional direction that it truly rises above almost every film that has been released this year.  When people look back at 2014 and the films that defined it/moved cinema forward, they will look to Richard Linkater's Boyhood and Ava DuVernay's Selma.  Selma is a high point for American Cinema.  It is a shining example of why cinema is still as important and powerful as ever.  


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