Review: Selma

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The biggest strength of Selma is perhaps also the film’s biggest weakness. The civil rights movement, and work of Martin Luther King Jr, is nothing new to the silver screen, with countless films focusing on this turbulent period of American history. Selma instead chooses to delve a little deeper giving the audience a look at King’s life beyond his famous speeches.

But the problem is that Selma doesn’t throw itself whole heartedly into this different perspective, instead relying on scenes of racial discrimination far too often. There is no denying the impact of these scenes; they make for a tough watch, but this perspective has been explored before. A greater focus on the man that was Martin Luther King could have really helped elevate Selma to become required viewing, instead it’s merely recommended.

After a year fraught with racial tension from across the pond, Selma is a disturbing reminder that for all the steps forward in the last fifty years there is still more than needs to be done. This is a well-timed release that will hopefully allow people to remember why equality is so important, and must be fought for regardless of the cost.

Selma is filled with startling and shocking moments – one within the first ten minutes literally left my jaw hanging. When confronted with such blatant injustice and racism it’s hard not to feel at least a little angry. Thankfully these moments never feel cheap or manipulative, though as mentioned they are leaned upon as a crutch a little too often.

Text is frequently displayed alongside a CIA logo, to give the audience context and a greater understanding of the geographical location each scene is taking place in, but it comes at a high price. It’s hard to get immersed within Selma when you’re frequently being reminded that you are watching a film.  Perhaps that was director Ava DuVernay’s intention, but it nevertheless takes away from the experience.

Speaking of Ava DuVernay, she does a fantastic job behind the camera. Whilst there is nothing particularly special visually about Selma, the use of music is brilliant, most noticeably in the march sequences. There’s also some praise worthy editing, once again mainly within the sequence of Martin Luther King and his supporters’ peacefully protesting. DuVernay doesn’t do anything revolutionary but her work is highly commendable, though the outrage about her lack of an Oscar nomination feels more politically motivated rather than artistically.

Selma can at times feel a little sleepy and in a few unfortunate scenes, borders almost on dull. Thankfully most of these moments are followed by gripping counterparts and overall the balance is very much in favour of the quality scenes. It is however worth noting that Selma does veer into ill-judged pacing a little too often to be ignored.

David Oyelowo is the unequivocal star of the show as Martin Luther King. Oyelowo appears at times to not be acting but instead to have actually become one of the most important figures in history. Scenes where he gives rousing speeches or eulogizes a poor soul who lost their life in the fight for equality are both deeply moving but also wonderfully empowering.

Support is given from a wide range of actors; Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey and Giovanni Ribisi among them. There’s a lot of interesting casting choices here and for most part each actor pulls off their role well. Tom Wilkinson portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson is extremely good; the scenes between Wilkinson and Oyelowo are engaging and well written.

Overall, Selma is a very good, and important, film. It’s not flawless and often makes some questionable decisions in terms of focus but its message is unwavering and critically is extremely important. In the decades since the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery much has changed, but there is still a work to stop racism that needs to be done, and Selma is a reminder of that.

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