Saturday 16 December 2017

Selma review - 'a powerful and beautifully constructed piece of cinema about a turbulent time in US history'


George Byrne

Drama. Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Roth, Common, Wendell Pierce, Colman Domingo, Martin Sheen, Nigel Thatch, Stan Huston, John Legend. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Cert 12A


When attempting to structure a biopic of a major historical figure there are many traps lurking within the process to snare the unwary, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi managed to skirt most of the potential pitfalls whilst maintaining a gravitas and dignity which its subject richly deserved whereas last year’s Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom seemed to steer straight towards every pothole in its path.

Despite a fine central performance from Idris Elba, that film tried to cover way too much ground with the result that it came across as a series of snapshots, fine enough in themselves but not enough to give us a true sense of the man which, say, concentrating on a specific time in his life may well have done. Thankfully, with Selma Ava DuVernay has made the correct decision to condense her story about Martin Luther King into a specific and crucial period in his life.

Although we open with King (David Oyelowo) reluctantly and nervously preparing his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, most of the action takes place the following year in Alabama.

A shocking sequence shows us the bombing of a church in Birmingham in which four young girls lost their lives before we cut to the elderly Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) coming up against blatant racism in her efforts to register to vote.

It’s this latter fight which prompted King and his associates to instigate a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, a 54-mile trek which would bring those taking part into the face of Southern bigotry at its most naked and violent but, crucially, would garner the kind of publicity for the cause which would alter the opinions of America and its president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

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It would have been very easy for DuVernay to let Selma slip into becoming an unsubtle hagiography but by and large she’s managed to show King as a principled but flawed man, not least when it comes to the matter of his frequent extra-marital liaisons and the effect that had on his relationship with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).

From an historical perspective, LBJ certainly wasn’t as entrenched as he’s portrayed here but in any biopic there are bound to be a few truths swept under the carpet.

What Selma does particularly well is balance the ideological in-fighting within the Civil Rights movement – King’s Gandhi-esque belief in passive resistance versus the more militant stance of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) – with bursts of violence which cause the viewer to gasp. Chief among these is the unbelievably brutal response of Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Huston) and the men under his command when the marchers attempt to cross a bridge over the Alabama river, an event captured live on American TV and marking a watershed in the struggle.

David Oyelowo is magnificent as MLK, giving a career-best performance as a man driven but still prone to self-doubt while there’s hardly a false note struck by any of the supporting players, Tim Roth in particular delivering a memorable turn as Alabama’s governor George Wallace. Ultimately, Selma is a powerful and beautifully constructed piece of cinema about a turbulent time in US history and well worthy of your attention.

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