Right in the heart of Oscar season, a crazy thing happens. The flashy explosion-based world of cinema that makes up the summer box office is slowly replaced with quiet, beautiful, and powerful biographical dramas. Currently in theaters, there are at least seven such films (including Unbroken, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, Big Eyes, and The Imitation Game). There is one I am missing, and that is Selma.
Selma is the first time a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. has ever been made for theatrical release. The story chronicles MLK’s marches and protests in preparation for his famous march from Selma to Montgomery to allow African Americans the right to vote in the South. David Oyelowo effortlessly plays MLK as a fierce and kind man, but not without his faults. Ava DuVernay directs with the passion of one who wants to portray the truth. This is her fourth feature film and she handles the medium perfectly. It is also incredibly refreshing to see a female director attached to such a big release.
DuVernay tells so much in only two hours. However, the strongest part of MLK as a character is not his long moving speeches, but his faults. His pride prevents him from working with Malcolm X. His wariness stops him from joining the march on the first day. His guilt leaves him silent (for an uncomfortable length of time) when his wife questions him on the affairs he may or may not have had. These faults allow us to connect with King on a more personal level, more than just the historical figure we know him as.
At times, the film’s pace stumbles and slows down drastically. It is, nonetheless, filled with emotion and life. Even when the three act structure loses its way at various points, you struggle to really complain because you give up traditional structure for powerful moments of dialogue and impressive speeches delivered by Oyelowo.
The cast overflows with talent. Seriously, the cast list is too long. Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, and Tom Winkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, just to name a few. Another complaint I have is that the insane amount of big names leaves you wanting more from them. The characters feel so packed at times.
Yet the film remains a joy to watch. Seeing someone who so perfectly knows how to use the medium such as DuVernay is a pleasure. She honors King’s legacy, keeps it truthful by leaving in the issues, and tells the story visually as much as she did through dialogue.
It has been nominated for Best Picture. In my honest opinion, the biggest snub at the Oscars was the lack of nominations for Oyelowo and DuVernay in their respective categories. However, that is an article for another time.