Martin Luther King fights the good fight
Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee C. White), Lorraine Toussaint (Amelia Boynton Robinson), Stephan James (John Lewis), Wendell Pierce (Hosea Williams), Common (James Bevel), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), Tim Roth (George Wallace), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper)
Tragically, for a while this film seemed to be most famous for being the poster child for “Oscar-Gate” or hashtag oscarssowhite (sorry hashtags are not my thing). Selma was the film that should have been littered with nominations. Instead it got just two – one for Picture, one for Best Song. Of the many, many snubs the most shocking were Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, particularly as other contenders up for the awards had certainly done inferior work that year (Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher anyone?). This film, however, categorically demands to be remembered in its own right – it is a fine, very moving piece of work, a dynamic history lesson that avoids preaching from a pulpit.
A lot of this comes down to the breathtaking work from David Oyelowo, who delivers one of those performances where the actor seems to transcend his skin, not just imitating Martin Luther King but inhabiting him, exploring and expressing every depth and shade. It’s a performance that stands comparison with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln. Oyelowo’s King is a big hearted, patient man but also a shrewd political player, a family man who betrays his wife, a political campaigner who holds the big picture and the small in his mind. It's a totally committed performance that is intensely respectful without ever feeling hagiographic.
Oyelowo’s performance also immeasurably helps the film’s structure, as this is a biography that focuses on one single key moment in its subject’s life, rather than attempting to cover the whole lot in one 2-3 hour sitting. I rather like this, as the important thing about these biopics is to understand the person at the centre, not just to tick off events in their life. Anyway this film focuses on three months in 1965: King is campaigning for equal voting rights, and planning a high-profile march across Alabama from Selma and Montgomery to pressure President Lyndon B Johnson to promote the Voting Rights Act.
This is a very powerful film, humming with a constant sense of the deep rooted injustice and oppression in America at this time. It makes no compromises in showing the violence meted out to Black Americans, but it’s the day-to-day injustice that DuVernay shows particularly well: in the opening scene, Annie Lee Cooper (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) has her carefully prepared application to vote cruelly dismissed by a smalltown clerk, gleefully and casually exploiting a succession of legal loopholes to thwart her. It’s a simple scene but amazingly powerful in its casual (unspoken) racism, and it brings to life in a few strokes the day-to-day experience of millions of people at this time.
It’s also a beautifully shot film, that uses the real-life location of the Selma bridge spectacularly. An assault on the first attempted march by mounted policeman, shrouded in tear gas, is deeply moving in its simplicity, the camera catching the brutal overreaction of the police with a journalistic eye (Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams is particularly impressive in the build-up to, and aftermath of, this sequence). Other moments of violence are equally shocking, but DuVernay never over-eggs the moment, allowing the events and the story to speak for themselves. We know how terrible some of these events are, and how disgusting the treatment of Black Americans was – the film never uses music or editing to hammer it home to us.
The film ends on the kind of high note you can only feel when injustice has been overcome and decent people triumph (punctured, DuVernay acknowledges, by the fates of some of the characters, revealed at the end of the film. More than one of these is a gut punch – not least the death of King himself three years later). But it’s never twee, preachy or a history lesson. Instead it’s a living, breathing expression of a moment in history that wraps you up in its story. Oyelowo is of course outstanding, but there is some excellent support, not least from Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta (overlooked at the time, but outstanding), Andre Holland, Stephen James, Lorraine Toussaint and Common as King’s fellow Civil Rights leaders. Tom Wilkinson adds a lot of depth to a sometimes thinly written Johnson, while Tim Roth translates his contempt for George Wallace in a performance of slappable vileness. A beautiful and marvellous film.